Pacific's Murata brothers are going where tennis takes them
Rayden Murata is on court 4 at the Atkins Tennis Center on the University of Illinois campus. He is coaching a junior clinic. The one he does every Wednesday night. Shoes squeak and tennis balls echo in the indoor tennis center.
Murata feeds a ball to a player, then watches.
Feeds, then watches.
Feeds, then watches.
Throughout the drill he will give a pointer to one of the players, tell them things they need to work on to improve their tennis game. After the drill is done, Murata and the kids pick up the balls around the tennis court and repeat the process. This is Murata's schedule for six days a week.
He was made for it.
Coaching was always going to be a part of his life, but leading was never meant to be. He wasn't a leader on the court growing up. That was his dad. He wasn't a leader in high school. That was his brother. College was where Murata grew as a player and a leader. Where winning became more about the team than himself.
Tennis was never a hobby for Murata. He was born into it. His dad was the tennis director at Waialae Iki V in Oahu, Hawaii. He grew up on the tennis court watching his dad coach others, along with him and his brother, Koby.
As Murata got older, his dad conducted more focused practices. These drills were part of a six-week training session his dad would put the brothers through before big tournaments in Hawaii.
"It was timed so we would peak during match week," says Murata. "We should be playing our best tennis by that time."
Every training, every workout and every drill was calculated. As long as his dad was his coach, there was a plan.
Murata's talent and passion guided him to a successful high school career. He and his brother became a trademark doubles duo. They finished as high as fourth in the state tournament and were named first-team Oahu Interscholastic Association players.
In Hawaii, the tennis community is small and everyone knows everyone. People knew the two Murata brothers from Kalani High School. The ones who had become a force on the island.
The two brothers worked well together, not just because they were siblings, but because of how hard both had worked. Koby Murata says playing together had a positive impact on their relationship: "As doubles partners, we were forced to cooperate with each other and grow together."
Rayden Murata was good. He knew it and he wanted it to prove it beyond the islands.
He went to Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon. A small Division III school where he knew he would succeed.
"I never wanted to have an impact on others when I came in. I just had self-goals," he said.
His sophomore season, the team played the University of Northern Colorado. A Division I school. This was an opportunity for Murata to showcase his talent against a team that played at the highest level, and he did.
Murata played No. 4 singles and won 6-4, 4-6, 15-13 in the deciding tiebreak. He had beaten a Division I player. Murata always felt he could compete at that level. That he was better than Division III.
Murata was beaming. His teammates? Not so much.
Why? The final score of the match was 8-1. What was there to be happy about?
That year, Murata was 9-2 in singles matches. The team, however, ended the season 9-7 and was blasted out of the conference tournament in the first round.
Murata was succeeding, the team was stalling.
His own results could only contribute so much. The current team had little to no will to win.
That's when his brother came.
Koby and two other players from Hawaii headlined a transformative 2018 recruiting class for Pacific tennis.
After not playing with his brother for the past two seasons, Koby noticed a change.
"When I got to college, it seemed like he had grown a lot as a player and a leader," Koby said. "He was now leading me and keeping me in check on court."
When Rayden's brother joined the team, he knew he had to change from a self-first mentality to a team-first one. "I was more willing to lead," Rayden said.
Sean Murphy, part of Rayden Murata's class, said that the culture abruptly became more selfless.
"There was a big emphasis on doing whatever it takes to help the team win," he said.
Murata and Murphy helped create a culture where the result of the team was greater than the result of the individual player. In an individual sport like tennis, that is never easy. Koby Murata said Rayden's selflessness when he got to Pacific was a huge reason why the team grew closer.
"I can't remember a time he turned down a hit without a valid reason," he said. "Just having someone always motivated to get better and willing to sacrifice their own valuable time for your sake is invaluable."
Rayden's senior year was one of expectations. He felt the team was in a position to win the conference championship. The team had just won their first conference match when there were rumors the season was in jeopardy due to COVID-19.
Within a few days, it was more than a rumor.
The athletic director gathered the tennis team mid practice. Their season was over. Rayden Murata's career was done.
"It was so hard to believe," said Murata. "It didn't seem real."
Murata had played out the end of his senior season in his head thousands of times. In none of those scenarios did he envision a world-altering pandemic.
By the summer, though, it became clear athletes would get an extra year of eligibility for the COVID-cancelled season. Although Murata knew it might be complicated academically and financially to come back for another season, there was no doubt.
"I knew if I didn't take the opportunity to play competitive tennis with my brother and teammates, I would regret it for the rest of my life," said Rayden Murata. After losing in the conference tournament for three straight years, Murata felt the team had a real chance to win the conference, even when no one else did.
"[Rayden] would constantly remind us how good we were and the chance we had at winning it all," said Koby Murata. "I don't think anyone really believed it until we started competing well and getting good wins."
The team proved him right, going 7-1 in conference. One of those wins was against Whitman College, which Pacific had not beaten in 36 years.
Before the conference tournament began, this team was already a part of Pacific history.
After beating Whitman again in the conference tournament, the team was in its first final since 2016.
Rayden Murata delivered two wins in the match, winning both in doubles and singles. However, the team lost, 5-4, to George Fox.
His dream of a championship did not come true.
But perhaps, something greater did.
"We showed our team is bigger than winning a championship," said Rayden Murata. "We created something that not a lot of people create."
That is: When Murata joined the Pacific tennis team, it was about himself and his individual results. As he left the program, it was about anything but.
For Murata, tennis is beyond a sport. It is life. There was no question what he would do after he graduated in May 2021. Just like his father years before him, he was going straight into coaching.
Murata calls his dad his biggest influence, the reason he is who he is. "I am literally him," says Murata. "I ended up being him with my life and my passion."
Murata moved to Champaign, to coach at the Atkins center. It is where the University of Illinois men's and women's tennis teams play. Murata said he goes to the tennis center early just to watch both teams practice. One of the benefits of coaching there for Murata is that he is associated with a Top-25 tennis program in the country.
As he coaches in Illinois, Pacific tennis is playing in tournaments a part of its fall season. Between breaks at his job, he is checking scores or watching a live stream of the tournament matches in progress. He knows the team is in good hands, for his brother is the captain.
On the courts in Champaign meanwhile, it is more than form and technique he wants to give his clients.
Tennis changed his life and gave him everlasting connections and that, he said, is what he wants to deliver to others.
"I know how much it changed my life. How much it changed my relationship with my dad and Koby," said Murata. "Having people that you share something you are passionate about, I want to give that to someone else."
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