Five Diverse Players at the Claremont Futures Event

Juan Manuel Elizondo, Radu Albot, Nikita Kryvonos, Michael McClune and Stephen Amritraj all played tennis matches at the Claremont Futures tournament just outside of Los Angeles yesterday. Futures tournaments are one step below Challenger events which are one step below main draw ATP events. Futures events typically feature college and beginning professional players.

It might not look like it but only one of those tennis players has no ties to the U.S. and only one of them has ties to exclusively to the U.S.

Take Juan Manuel Elizondo. He was born and raised in Mexico but his mother was born and raised in California. There is a Mexican Tennis Federation but Juan Manuel never got much help from them and this is a recurring theme in the world of junior tennis. Players from poorer countries get little help from their national tennis associations.

The Lawn Tennis Association of Britain pays Brad Gilbert almost one million dollars a year to coach Andy Murray, for instance, but Radu Albot won’t see much if anything from his country, Moldova, a small country of four million people surrounded by Romania and Ukraine.

Radu trains in Frankfurt, Germany with his coach Djerald Oganezov, a Georgian coach he met at a junior tournament in Germany. Oganezov has helped Radu a great deal and this is important because it’s likely to take Radu at least a few years to reach the top 100 and he won’t make a living on the Futures circuit. Most Futures events have a total prize money of $10,000.

Radu has no ties to the U.S. but he would have if his family had entered the green card lottery and received one of the 269 slots open to Moldovians. Each year the U.S. government holds a lottery for 50,000 green cards designated for countries that are underrepresented in the U.S.

Nikita Kryvonos’s family is from Ukraine and they won their green card in the lottery when Nikita was 13 year old. After he won a few age group tournaments, the U.S. Tennis Association (USTA) began helping him even though he wasn’t yet a citizen.

As soon as he became a citizen, they helped him further by making him a hitting partner on last year’s Davis Cup team for the tie in Moscow. The Davis Cup team hazes new players and Nikita got his share. He had to carry a plate of tomatoes out of the US Embassy after a team dinner. I’ve no doubt that counts as a breach of Homeland Security.

Michael McClune hasn’t hit with the Davis Cup team yet but it can’t be far away. He won the most prestigious U.S. junior tournament – Kalamazoo – in July and that got him a wild card into the main draw at the U.S. Open. He lost his first round match but he did get to hit with Roger Federer for two and a half hours on his 18th birthday. I’d settle for that.

Michael is the player with the exclusive U.S. ties and he’s the only player in the group who has signed with IMG, the sports management company that also happens to represent Mr. Federer. Michael doesn’t have to worry about finding a sponsor to bankroll his next year or two in the minor leagues of tennis.

Stephen Amritraj was born to an Indian father and an American mother and raised in the U.S. with some of his youth spent in India. He is one smart and determined guy. He finished Duke University in three and a half years and played tennis through his senior year despite suffering two torn acls, one in each knee.

He suffered his first torn acl in junior tennis and re-injured his knee the following year playing on the Duke tennis team. At the end of his junior year, he tore the acl in his other knee. In Stephen’s words, “Usually when someone has one you don’t hear about it again let alone having two.” In other words, one torn acl is often the end of a successful tennis career, two is unheard of.

He plans to focus on doubles and is off to Bombay next week to play an ATP level event after which he’ll return to California to play Challenger events.

Since Stephen majored in political science at Duke, I asked his opinion about the Duke rape case. Last year three innocent Duke lacrosse players were indicted for raping a black college student who was hired to strip at a team party. The players were vilified by the national media and local population and the District Attorney brought the indictments without corroborating evidence. The District Attorney was recently disbarred for his actions.

Stephen was not lacking an opinion. While he decried the treatment of the players by the media and the judicial system, “I hate what happened to them, no one ever deserves that no matter how bad they are,” he also said, “I just want to go on record – you can print this wherever you want – that group of guys had it coming to them.”

It’s easy to focus on the miscarriage of justice in this case and forget some of the things that actually did happen that night. As Stephen put it:

If you look at the facts of that night and what they did, they definitely hired a stripper, they definitely yelled racial epithets at her, they definitely treated her horrendously and disrespected her, and did whatever they could to berate her.

This is one of the reasons I like going to Futures and Challengers events. I know I’ll speak to someone from a small country I’ve barely ever heard of, but I also know I’ll learn more than I ever expected about the country I live in.

Go out to Claremont and watch these young men play the final rounds of the tournament. Go to Futures and Challenger events in your area. You’ll see the next generation of our top tennis players and learn something about the world.

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