• April 9, 2024

Burnel Celebrated for Stability, Accolades Brought to Men’s Tennis

Burnel Celebrated for Stability, Accolades Brought to Men’s Tennis
Men's tennis team captain Emilien Burnel, center, is applauded by his teammates during the Senior Day ceremony before the match April 7.

RIO GRANDE VALLEY – Two years was all Emilien Burnel needed to make a significant impact with the men’s tennis program at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV).

His contributions go far beyond the numbers, though the numbers that make up his UTRGV career are staggering – 14 weekly or monthly awards from the Western Athletic Conference (WAC), 65 combined victories and counting, a .660 career doubles winning percentage and a .602 combined career winning percentage despite lining up in the No. 1 spot in all but five matches.

Burnel transferred to UTRGV after three years at Northern Kentucky (2019-22), where he accumulated 23 doubles wins and 17 singles wins while playing the majority of his matches in the top flights. But he found himself wanting to go somewhere different, somewhere he would be challenged more in practice, somewhere he could compete alongside teammates who also wanted to improve every day.

He found that environment at UTRGV.

“When I came here, everything was different,” Burnel said. “The training was different, longer, harder. We do lots of drills that help you during your matches and the people you’re playing with are invested in what we’re doing. I improved a lot in my tennis.”

Burnel fit in with the Vaqueros right away, but the process of getting to UTRGV wasn’t quite as smooth as the transition.

“It’s a pretty funny story. When he initially went in the transfer portal, he sent me an email… and I ignored it,” head coach Nathan Robinson admitted with a laugh. “About a month and a half later, he sends me another email with a video this time and says he’s still looking. I jumped on the phone with him and about 10 days later, we had him signed. Fortunately, no school was smart enough to sign him in the meantime, so I consider us very lucky that he came our way.”

Robinson expected Burnel to play in the top half of the lineup, probably on the second or third court. During his first week on campus, though, Burnel told his coach he wanted to play at No. 1.

Burnel started his Vaqueros career going 3-0 to win the D Draw at the UTSA Roadrunner Invitational, earning his first WAC Player of the Month award for his efforts. He opened the spring season swapping between the first and second flights during UTRGV’s trip to Stillwater, where the Vaqueros played Oklahoma State twice and Oral Roberts once. Playing at No. 2 against ORU, Burnel impressed Robinson with a come-from-behind, three-set victory that got him moved to the top court.

The following weekend, he battled through an injury sustained in warm-up and defeated SMU’s Pranav Kumar in a 6-7 (6:8), 6-4, 1-0 (13:11) match. That win is a favorite from his illustrious career. He has not played below No. 1 in singles or doubles since.

“After the match, Coach came to me and said, ‘Well you kind of ruined my plans because I was trying to mix you and Borna Devald between one and two, but now I can’t put you anywhere else.’ That was a good moment for me,” Burnel said.

Burnel’s singles resume is solid, headlined by wins against Power Five schools such as BYU and Texas Tech and competitive opponents like UTSA, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, Nevada and others. He is 32-26 in singles and earned All-WAC First Team Singles honors in 2023.

His doubles play has been a true delight. Burnel boasts a 33-17 doubles record at UTRGV, finding success with every partner he shares the court with. He has earned seven doubles awards from the WAC with three different teammates. Last season, he made the All-WAC Second Team and the WAC All-Tournament Team in doubles.

“He has been, by far, our best doubles player for the last two years,” Robinson praised.

There are a lot of things that make Burnel a special tennis player. He’s exceptionally athletic, covering the court with speed and determination. His serve is powerful and his ability to sit back and play defensively but in an instant attack the net for finishers is outstanding.

But what truly sets Burnel apart, in Robinson’s eyes, is his competitive spirit.

“He is possibly the most competitive guy I have ever coached. That’s what everything is built around,” Robinson said. “He’s definitely the best athlete I’ve ever coached. Great skillset, good hands, big serve, and just a grit about him. He’s the guy we know is going to push and do whatever he can to find a way through. He’s been the guy for our team. If it’s three-all in the match, if there’s one guy we want out there, it’s Emilien Burnel.”

Burnel was born in France, then moved to Croatia and Romania before returning to France. Moving around, playing multiple sports, learning to hone-in his competitiveness and focus his passion all helped him with the next chapter he found at UTRGV – one not just about tennis, but about being the ultimate leader.

“I’ve matured here, and it helped me a lot. I’m more committed to what I’m doing,” Burnel said. “Becoming the captain showed me that I’ve grown. I have a good relationship with my coach, and I know that he trusts me and I trust him. It’s funny because sometimes I forget that my teammates are really young… and stupid. But I know that everyone’s looking up to me because I’m the oldest, I’m the captain, I’m high in the lineup, so I have to do things right.”

Maturing didn’t happen overnight. Robinson credited Burnel with making the decisions to be a better tennis player, a better student, and to set himself up to do big things in college. The coach reflected on changes he’s seen in Burnel – more consistency with his focus level, willingness to be the “bad guy” to get stuff done as a leader, and his commitment to always being the hardest worker whether it’s in matches, drills, the weight room, conditioning, and beyond.

That growth and those choices led to Burnel’s incredible impact on the program.

“There were a lot of moving parts my first two years here. We had a lot of good players that didn’t stay. Emi was the stabilizer,” Robinson said. “He came in and said, ‘Watch what happens when you do things correctly. Watch the success that will come from doing what is asked of you.’ He’s been the guy to show that we’re doing the right things and what can happen when you buy in. He’s going to be the guy who’s remembered in 10 years, 15 years when the program is in a completely different place. He shifted that and found ways to make this hidden gem more of a gem.”

Burnel didn’t just raise his own levels while in the Valley. He reestablished the standard for UTRGV men’s tennis with his consistency, work ethic, competitiveness, and genuine care for his team.

It’s not his goal to be considered the greatest in program history. He just hopes people see that he tried to leave the program better than he found it.

It’s undeniable that he accomplished that along with so much more, and he did so in his own way – and it won’t be forgotten.

“I would like for my impact to be that my teammates see that if you put the work in, you’ll get compensated. But you also have to have fun,” Burnel said. “It’s been a really amazing two years. I like to think that I helped the program get a little bit better. It really means a lot to me to have been a part of this program.”

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