Big Ten Tennis Teams Expand Recruiting to a Global Scale

By Athena Liu
Medill Reports

International student athletes are commanding a bigger role on Big Ten tennis teams. The constant pursuit of better players, both athletically and academically, requires coaches to look outside the United States and keep an eye out for talented high school players at every corner of the world, said Arvid Swan, head coach of the Northwestern University Men’s Tennis Team.

Northwestern has four international players on the team roster, three of whom were recruited as rookies and started this year. Purdue University Men’s Tennis also added four international freshman players to the program for the 2017-2018 season, and the percentage of international players overall reached an incredible 88.9 percent – the highest among Big Ten men’s tennis teams. Purdue Head Coach Pawel Gajdzik is himself from Poland and assistant coach Francisco Stuardo Vargas is from Chile.

Don’t be surprised at the diversity of Big Ten tennis teams, nor their popularity among international high school graduates. There are currently 49 international players playing for 11 of the 12 Big Ten teams. Michigan State University an exception, with all U.S. players.

Medill interviewed Swan and Gajdzik on the issue of recruiting internationally, and how the name of Big Ten has helped along the way.

Q: How does the recruiting process work in general?
Swan: We go to some tournaments internationally throughout the season. Some of us are working with coaches who have players. It’s basically a lot of travel, watching guys play, then evaluating who might be able to help us, and if they make the admission center to Northwestern.

Q: Some websites are devoted to helping tennis recruiting. How much do you refer to them?
Swan: They provide some match results and tournament results. That’s helpful. But I don’t really care what their rankings are. We are always evaluating our team and what we need.

Gajdzik: It’s nice to have all kinds of information about players, but what’s on paper doesn’t necessarily translate to how they are going to perform on the court. There’s big difference between junior tennis and college class.

Swan talks to Nick Brooks, first-year college player from England, during the game with Chicago State University. (Athena Liu/MEDILL)

Q: What is the role of recruiting for players in making the transition from high school tennis and college tennis?
Gajdzik: Tennis has become more and more physical over the last 15, 20 years, and you have more mature players in college. There are age difference (gaps) – mental first and then physical. You get a little more exposed to a different variety of games in college. I think in any sports you will see that transition. Football has the red-shirt year to minimize the gap between guys that are 21, 22 and 17-year-old high school graduates. That’s technically a big difference.

Swan: Everyone hopefully recruits guys that are good in juniors as well, but we certainly had a lot of examples of guys that have improved in college over the four years. The three guys who have just graduated from our program – Strong Kirchheimer, Sam Shropshire and Konrad Zieba – were among the best American players in college and improved a lot since they came. A big part of my job is to make sure they get better.

Q: Is it a new trend to focus more on international recruiting?
Swan: It depends on the players. It doesn’t really matter if they are American or they are international. For me it’s just getting a good player.

Gajdzik: Every program has their different strategies. Myself, I grew up in Europe, and I came to college as an international student athlete. I had a very similar experience to a lot of international student athletes. That’s definitely a plus. And the main thing is that you got to go and find the best college to be successful, so that doesn’t matter if you are within or outside the United States.

Gajdzik gives tips to players during a game. (Photo courtesy of Purdue Athletes)

Q: What are the challenges in recruiting international players?
Swan: There is no challenge. I travel a lot to Europe, so distance is not a problem. Also, most of the time, international players are used to playing in different countries. They are used to being mature and being away from home.

Gajdzik: I don’t think recruiting international players at this time is the issue like it was 40, 50 years ago. Right now you can hop on a plane and be in Europe within eight or nine hours, but it probably takes you six or seven hours to drive to Tennessee. We have Internet. We have all kinds of communication devices that make connecting with people around the world much easier. So that aspect is probably taking out of the equation in the last 15, 20 years as the world becomes smaller and everything becomes more and more approachable.

Q: When it comes to recruiting, how does the Big Ten look?
Swan: We are in a major conference – the Big Ten. And we are one of the best academic schools in the world. There are proven track records of developing players.

Gajdzik: The Big Ten Conference speaks for itself. It’s probably one of the oldest conferences in the United States. Outside the Ivy League, we are seen as the academic conference. It’s a great exposure. The degree from any university in our conference means a lot and opens a lot of doors. And if you see players that come in, they study really hard and they open doors in the career that make them very successful based on the education they received in the Big Ten Conference. So I think that’s a big plus and we are all proud to be part of it.

Photo at top: The logos in this composite image are from Wikimedia Commons. The background image is from pxhere.com. Image collagedby Athena Liu/MEDILL)