Lauren Wagner dreaded her trip to Nebraska.
She grew up in the shadow of New York City and honed her tennis game at a tennis academy in the mountains 60 miles north of Los Angeles. So when Lauren was choosing a college in the fall of 2011, she wanted to be in a big city. Or by a beach.
The Great Plains were not on her radar until an adviser told her to visit Lincoln.
“He was like, ‘You’re going to go visit Nebraska,’” Wagner said. “I hung up the phone. I was like, ‘No, I’m not going there.’”
Wagner thought she would never be able to fit in. She thought she would not find anything to like.
Then a funny thing happened.
“I came here and I instantly loved it,” Wagner said. “I knew as soon as I took the tour and met all the girls. That night, I committed.”
The Robbie Wagner Tournament Training Center in Glen Cove, N.Y., has 17 tennis courts and more than 25 coaches. And since it belongs to Lauren Wagner’s dad, she was always going to be a tennis player.
“I’m in a tennis family, so ever since I could walk, I played tennis,” Lauren Wagner said.
The freshman from Roslyn Heights, N.Y., less than 20 miles away from downtown New York, learned to play at her father’s facility, though her father rarely taught her himself. When Lauren was young, she and her father decided to separate their family lives from their tennis lives.
“It just never really works out well, it seems,” Lauren Wagner said. “I’m really close with my dad, so I didn’t want to mess anything up. I knew I could always go to him if I ever needed, and he would always help me.”
Instead, Robbie Wagner set his daughter up with one of his top coaches.
“It’s hard for kids to take criticism from your parents,” Robbie Wagner said. “My wife and I thought it would be better for her to have an outside person. It’s just better for me to be her father rather than being her coach.”
Lauren Wagner stayed in New York until ninth grade, when she decided to attend the Weil Tennis Academy in Ojai, Calif. She went for the tougher competition. But her dad also said the transfer could relieve some of Lauren’s pressure.
“She was always sort of like a marked person,” Robbie Wagner said. “There’s Robbie’s daughter. He owns all these clubs and coaches, these players. I thought there would be less pressure on her, and I thought it would be better for her tennis-wise.”
In California, Lauren Wagner got homesick sometimes, but six hours of tennis each day, coupled with fitness training and online classes, was enough to keep her busy. She made trips home, flying across the country by her 13-year-old self, to see her parents and brother, and they made trips to see her.
Lauren Wagner did miss her friends from her father’s tennis club, though.
“It was a group of kids my age, and we always used to travel and go to all these tournaments in the most random places, and we’d just have so much fun,” she said.
But the environment at the academy was different. Still, Lauren Wagner eventually learned where to fit in, and she made friends from around the world.
“She might struggle a little bit at first,” Robbie Wagner said. “Like everything else she’s done in her life, she’ll be a success. Her work ethic is unbelievable.”
When Lauren Wagner chased her dream of playing Division I tennis, another culture shift resulted. But the Nebraska women’s tennis team made the transition easy.
“They’re all super nice, friendly,” Lauren Wagner said. “They really made me feel comfortable and I felt like I had similar goals as them.”
And though she still wonders what might be different if her dad had coached her – if she could have been an even better tennis player – or if she could have lived her childhood dreams of playing professionally and winning Grand Slams, Lauren Wagner now has no regrets.
“I’m happy where I am now, so I don’t think anything needs to be changed. Whatever I did worked, apparently,” she said. “There is always more to come, but so far everything is working out.”
Lauren Wagner considers herself an indecisive person. She said she cannot make up her mind on even the simplest tasks.
But she didn’t hesitate when she chose to play tennis at Nebraska.
“I was 100 percent sure of myself,” she said.
Lauren Wagner and her mother had another college visit the next day, but Lauren can’t remember where it was. Not that it mattered because Shari Wagner had already told her husband that Lauren should go to Nebraska.
“It’s the perfect place for her,” Robbie Wagner said.
And Lauren Wagner had already called NU coach Scott Jacobson to express her interest.
“I was just like, ‘I want to come here,’” she said. “And I’m happy I made that decision, of course.”
Lauren Wagner found she could fit in where she never thought she could. The first time she visited NU, she learned something she never expected to learn.
That she loved Nebraska.