Ex-Rebel recalls NCAA title

In Australia during the early 1990s, teenage tennis prospects had two options if they wanted to continue their careers: Turn pro or leave home and go to college in the United States.

Tim Blenkiron chose the latter and was all set to attend Notre Dame. But for some reason he still doesn’t understand, he procrastinated about turning in his necessary paperwork. During that time, someone told him about UNLV. He wrote to Rebels coach Larry Easley, who was interested.

Not only did Blenkiron wind up playing for the Rebels, he brought another talented Aussie, Luke Smith, to Las Vegas with him. Together, they would win the 1997 NCAA doubles championship.

Tonight at the new UNLV Student Union, Blenkiron and Smith will be inducted into the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame along with women’s tennis star Marianne Vallin, softball star Kim Rondina, All-America football punter Joe Kristosik, track coach Al McDaniels and dentist Dr. James Callaway. In addition, two teams will be honored — the 1998 national champion men’s golf team and the 1995 NCAA Women’s College World Series softball squad.

"Coming to UNLV has shaped my life," Blenkiron said. "Not only did I have success as a tennis player, I got my degree (in hotel management), I met my wife there and I made Las Vegas my home. The way I look at my UNLV experience is I gave them very little and got back a lot."

Today, Blenkiron is a big part of the Las Vegas tennis community, serving as director of tennis at the Las Vegas Hilton and The Meadows School along with serving as president of the Nevada chapter of the United States Tennis Association. He also is Asia Muhammad’s coach as the 17-year-old Las Vegan is wrapping up her first year as a professional.

"I’m definitely busy," Blenkiron said. "But it’s fun. To help grow the sport I love in Nevada, to see young people enjoy playing, it’s very rewarding."

At 10 a.m. Saturday, Blenkiron, Smith and Vallin will participate in a fundraiser for UNLV tennis at the Fertitta Tennis Complex. Blenkiron said while the honor of going into his alma mater’s hall of fame is wonderful, he’s more excited about reconnecting with Smith and Vallin.

"I think I’ve seen Smitty once in the last 10 years, and I haven’t seen Marianne since we graduated," he said. "That’s what I’m looking forward to the most about the weekend."

While Blenkiron and Smith brought honor to UNLV with their NCAA win, it almost didn’t happen. Easley didn’t decide to pair them until their senior year.

"People forget we were a very deep team then," Blenkiron said of the Rebels, who won three straight Big West Conference titles from 1994 to 1996. "Plus, Luke was our top singles player, so Larry was reluctant to use him in doubles. But we knew each other so well, it was easy for us to work as a team on the court."

Smith also captured the NCAA singles title in 1997. Blenkiron remembered the moment after they won the doubles title.

"I called my folks back in Australia and I think I woke them up," he said. "I told them we had won and that we were going to get to play in the U.S. Open. It was a very pleasant surprise."

Tickets are still available for tonight’s induction ceremonies. For more information, call 895-1533.

Contact reporter Steve Carp at scarp@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2913.

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