I love my job. Two weeks ago I went to a futures tournament in Claremont, California, and spoke to a player whose grandfather was a cricket legend in India. Last week I went to a futures tournament further south in Costa Mesa and traveled from the Israeli/Lebanon border to Ghana then on to Basel and the Philippines before ending up in New Mexico. Along the way I learned a lot more about Roger Federer, Andre Agassi, Marcos Baghdatis and U.S. college tennis that I ever expected.
Dudi Sela was the top ranked player in the Costa Mesa tournament. Earlier this year he was ranked number 160 but then he broke his elbow during a training accident and dropped into the 300’s. He took the title at Claremont and is ready to climb back up the rankings.
Sela’s hometown, which he stills calls home, is Kiryat Shmona, a small town in Northern Israel two miles from the border with Lebanon. As you can imagine, it’s been the target of Hezbollah rocket attacks on many occasions. Five or six years ago Sela was hiding out with his family in their basement shelter when a rocket blew out the windows and doors of the house. Sela hasn’t lost any family members but he knew people in town who died in rocket attacks.
At one point Sela lived in Paris for a year and practiced with his best friend Marcos Baghdatis. I once asked Baghdatis why he plays so well against top ten players but I didn’t get a very good answer and now I could ask his best friend. Sela’s answer: “Because he’s bored, he wants to play the big guys.” I also asked Sela why Baghdatis is so good. Sela tapped his chest and said, “Big heart, he has a big heart and he’s talented.”
Henry Adjei-Darko is from Ghana. He’s a tall player with an aggressive game and graceful, powerful strokes. When he hits a forehand he jumps into the air and his shirt goes flying as the racket wraps around his body. And this is despite injuring his foot a few days earlier. While he gets treatment for his foot after winning his match, I check into a match with a player from the Philippines, Patrick-John Tierro. I know there aren’t many players from Ghana but what about the Philippines? Their top two players, Cecil Mamiit and Eric Taino, were both born in the U.S. and live in Los Angeles but play for the Filipino Davis Cup team.
That’s just the beginning of the U.S.-Filipino connection which has a long history. Before we get into that, though, let’s take a short twenty year trip to Switzerland. Tierro’s coach is Beeyong Sisson, a former ATP player who is a delightful and talkative fellow. I started out by asking my usual question – what kind of support does your country’s tennis association give young players? – and got the usual answer: not much. But then, to my utter surprise, Sisson mentioned that he coached in Basel, Switzerland for twenty years and I immediately switched the conversation to Roger Federer.
“Wow,” I said, “that means you watched Roger Federer develop.” Yes he did and he even coached him at times because he was a Swiss National Coach assistant. The next obvious question was, “Okay then, why is Federer so good?” The first two reasons Sisson gave were expected. Federer’s game is well-rounded because he’s well-rounded as a person and also because he was a ball-boy for many years at the Basel indoor tournament so he got to see the best players such as Becker, Sampras and Agassi. But Sisson’s next statement was something different:
Agassi, in my opinion, if he had not gone to this academy early on, I think he would have gotten more grand slams than Pete.
Sisson is referring to the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, Andre Agassi was sent there by his father when he was fourteen years old. Sisson was making the point that players in Switzerland had an emotional connection to their community and they were allowed to develop into full human beings before they started their life on the tour. Life at tennis academies can pressure players to get immediate results and that can end up stunting their game and their emotional development.
Agassi described his life at the academy in an interview with Gary Smith for Sports Illustrated on the eve of his retirement. Agassi was a terrified and lonely teenager while he was living away from home. He turned pro partially to escape the academy atmosphere but it didn’t help. He got to number one in the world but he still wasn’t sure who he was. It took a painful tumble to a ranking of 141 and therapy to finally come to terms with his father, the same man who answered his son’s phone call telling him he’d won Wimbledon by saying, “You should have won in four.”
We don’t know what would have happened if Agassi had stayed at home, he might have gone through the same emotional turmoil, but he would have been able to work through his difficulties with his family. We also don’t know if Agassi would have won slams without going to a tennis academy, but Federer is a good example of a player who was given time to develop in a more integrated environment. As is Pete Sampras who grew up and learned to play in Southern California.
After those twenty years in Switzerland, Sisson returned to the Philippines and established a tennis center in Subic Bay which was the closing of an interesting circle. The father of Patrick-John Tierro – the young Filipino who Sisson is coaching here – was born in the U.S. and served a career in the U.S. Navy. After he retired he moved to the Philippines and lives in Olongapo City which surrounds Subic Bay. The U.S. had owned and run Subic Bay as a naval base since the end of the Spanish-American war. In 1946 the Philippines finally became an independent country and signed agreements with the U.S. to continue to maintain military bases on their soil. Three months before the last agreement was set to expire in 1991, Mount Pinatubo erupted and destroyed Clark Air Base, a U.S. Air Force base, and dumped a foot of volcanic ash onto Subic Bay.
Many Filipinos were unhappy about the U.S. presence in the Philippines and the Mt. Pinatubo eruption was a symbolic last blow. After the agreement expired, the U.S. was given three years to leave and Subic Bay is now a commercial and industrial site with resorts, shopping, and a thriving tennis center.
After talking to Sisson, I finally managed to track down Henry Adjei-Darko just as he was leaving the site. He was limping with an ice bag on his foot but was nice enough to stand and talk to me. As I suspected, Adjei-Darko did not receive much help from the Ghanaian tennis association but he did get help from the International Tennis Federation (ITF), the world governing body of tennis. The ITF gives financial help to the top ranked juniors in many different countries so they can travel to junior tournaments and improve their game. For help in the pro ranks, though, Adjei-Darko gets help from a private sponsor who lives in Orlando. It’s not uncommon, Tierro also has a sponsor who is a businessman in the Philippines.
I wanted to end this trip around the world by speaking to an American player so I tried to track down Stanford player Matt Bruch, the number 10 player in the NCAA rankings, but I couldn’t find him so I asked the man standing next to me if he knew where Matt was. Pay dirt. It turns out I was speaking to Alan Dils, the tennis coach at the University of New Mexico. I’ve been asking players about foreign students taking scholarships at U.S. universities, now I could ask a coach.
Let’s start with the current NCAA rules: 1. a player must start college by the time he or she is twenty years old. The original rule required that a player must start at a U.S. college by the time they were twenty but that’s been relaxed to include any college. 2. A player cannot play in an organized tennis event between the time they are twenty and the time they start college.
How does Dils how feel about foreign students on U.S. college teams?
Personally I think it’s great that the number seventy-five team can beat the number twenty team in the nation right now.
Not only do foreign players bring depth to the college game but without the foreign players, top teams would get the best players and, as Dils said, “the rich would get richer.” Stanford is one of those rich teams and they’re one of the last teams to give a scholarship to a foreign player. They had no choice because they no longer have their pick of the top players since there are so many good tennis programs now.
But Dils isn’t totally happy. There are a lot of loopholes to the rules. Players can enter professional events before turning twenty and they can also purchase transcripts, particularly in Eastern European countries where the bureaucracy can be hard to infiltrate. With a purchased transcript, a player can play professionally while they are supposedly going to college full time then enter a U.S. college at age twenty-two with three or four years of professional tennis experience. Dils said “I know for a fact” that this has happened.
Dils would be happier if the age limit was reduced to nineteen and the twenty and under college requirement was limited to U.S. colleges. He would also like the rules enforced as they are. Andre Begemann, a player from Germany, won the deciding match that gave Pepperdine the NCAA title this spring. Begemann broke the rules by playing a professional tournament after his twentieth birthday and before starting college but the NCAA gave him a waiver because the match was within a month of his birthday and he played only one match. Begemann will be a twenty-two year old sophomore at Pepperdine this year.
I’ve written about foreign tennis players at U.S. colleges a number of times and I’ve always championed an open door policy because U.S. tennis will only get better against the best players. But now, in agreement with Dils, I’d reinstate the original rule requiring players to enter a U.S. college by age twenty else we’ll soon have twenty-five year olds winning the NCAA title.
That ends our world tour for today. There’s another futures tournament this week in Irvine. I’m getting a bit tired of traveling so I plan to speak to U.S. players this time around.