Heading into last week’s NCAA Division III men’s team tennis national championship match, Emory University’s No. 2 singles player could no longer compete due to back spasms. As a result, longtime Emory coach John Browning bumped up his other singles players in rank. That included senior Will Wanner, who moved up from No. 4 singles to No. 3 singles for the title tilt against Case Western.
Under normal circumstances, Wanner would be up to the challenge.
“But after the semifinals match (the day before), I felt like I had a boulder in my stomach. I felt terrible,” the Lancaster Mennonite graduate recalled.
“I was so depleted from not being able to keep food or drink in me.”
He didn’t feel much better the day of the championship tilt.
“I just tried to put it out of my mind and work with what I had that day,” Wanner said. “Once I stepped on the doubles court, that was behind me.”
Wanner and teammate Andrew Esses won their doubles match 8-4, and Wanner won his singles match 6-0, 6-4, helping Emory capture its sixth national championship.
Perhaps the most remarkable part of the feat is that Wanner did so with partial vision, the result of a serious injury three years earlier that left him nearly blind in his left eye.
The District Three Class 2A singles champion as a Blazers' senior in 2017, Wanner made a smooth transition to the college game that fall, earning All-America honors in doubles after he and partner Adrien Bouchet went 5-0 to win the Intercollegiate South Region Championships.
At the second day of practice of the spring 2018 season, Wanner was one of four Emory players on a court in a drill that had two live tennis balls in play.
“One angled off in the wrong direction and caught me squarely in the left eye,” Wanner said. “I went through a period where I couldn’t see anything. I woke up the next day with a big, black spot in my left eye. It was terrifying. One of the scariest moments of my life.”
A specialist at Emory University Hospital later told Wanner, “You’ll never see out of your eye the way you had in the past.”
“I remember Will coming of the hospital room,” Browning recalled. “Devastated.”
With her son’s tennis career hanging in the balance, Wanner’s mother eventually convinced him to seek a second opinion. It led to a flight back to Lancaster and a meeting with Dr. Roy Brod, an ophthalmologist with Lancaster Retina Specialists.
“(Brod) saw something different,” Wanner said. “He gave me more of an optimistic prognosis. The swelling would go down. The blood would drain. I would get my vision back.”
Wanner played through his sophomore season in spring 2019 with the left eye still healing, part of the No. 2 doubles team for an Emory squad that won the national championship.
“I wouldn’t say I was compensating in any physical way,” Wanner said. “I was more tactical. I stopped coming to the net and played from the baseline, which gave me more time to see the ball.”
“Anything can happen’
By the start of his junior campaign in fall 2019, he felt his eye had healed as best it would. He earned All-America honors in doubles for a second time after he and partner Antonio Mora won the ITA South Region Championships.
“The way I usually describe it to people is looking through a windshield with water on it,” Wanner said of the current vision of his left eye. “My periphery is still good.”
After the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the spring 2020 and fall 2020 seasons, Emory began practices in February not knowing if it would even have a season this spring.
“In December 2020 I received an email that the conference had canceled the spring tournament,” Browning said. “I was thinking we were just going to practice the entire spring. So at the first practices (in February) nobody really had the right mindset. I just told them, ‘Anything can happen. The NCAAs might still go on.’”
The Emory head coach since 1999, Browning has now steered his teams to six national crowns.
“In our championship runs there’s always one player who, for whatever reason, has this belief, demeanor, positivity. ... They end up being one of the reasons for us going over the top,” Browning said.
Wanner was that player for Emory this time around.
“When we were at home practicing the week before (the national championship),” Browning said, “I could tell (Wanner) was on edge. ... My gut told me he was focused.”
Even if Wanner felt sick to his stomach on the day of the national title contest. And the vision in his left eye was like a car windshield on a rainy day.
“It goes back to lessons that my parents and older siblings instilled in me,” Wanner said. “If you want something and you want to be great at it, it’s going to be uncomfortable.”
After a playing career of ups and downs, Wanner went out on top.
“It meant the world to me,” he said. “Once I finished the singles match and realized my job was done, I felt a huge wave of relief and also a feeling of melancholy that it was finally over.”