With players coming from three different continents, the Northwestern men’s tennis team shows their strong ability to leverage diversity into unity.
Among the 19 sports teams at Northwestern, the men’s tennis team has the second highest proportion of international players this season. Four of the nine players, or 44.4 percent, come from countries outside the United States, just behind the women’s tennis team’s 50 percent. Women’s field hockey takes third place with 31.8 percent but the team has a much larger roster of total players.
But while culture and traditions may be diverse, players rely on a common language to break the ice – their sport.
Under Arvid Swan, who signed on as head tennis coach in 2007, the Northwestern men’s tennis team maintains a tradition of recruiting outstanding players from all over the world. In 2015-2016, then senior player Fedor Baev of Norway finished the season ranked fifth in Northwestern’s history, with 19 doubles victories. In the same season, Turkish player Alp Horoz rewrote the team record for the second best single-season dual-match, winning with an amazing 83.3 percent.
These international players, among others, significantly contributed to the ascending performance of the team. The Wildcats won 13 times over top-50 national opponents, finished second in the Big Ten Conference, and reached as high as No. 7 in the national rankings during the regular season.
This season, with the three international freshmen – Johannes Abrahamsen of Norway, Nick Brookes of England and Antonioni Fasano of Brazil – on the team roster, the international diversity has reached a record-high level.
“It is a privilege to have players of different cultural diversity on the team,” Swan said. “Each player adds to the positive overall dynamic of the team.”
Dominik Starý, a sophomore player from the Czech Republic, joined the team as the only international player in 2016. “The way I contributed to the team was that I brought something new,” Starý recalled. That included Czech humor and music – “all that cultural stuff.”
For international players, coming to Northwestern added to the potential for to their careers. “America was a smart choice, balancing great academics and great tennis,” Starý said.
At age 16, Fasano had achieved an ITF juniors ranking of top 150 globally. If he had stayed in Brazil after graduating from high school, he would have to choose between playing professional tennis and going to college as a full-time student, a life-changing decision. “I thought that, when I was 18, it was too early to decide whether I want to play tennis for my whole life or not. At that moment, I didn’t. So I decided maybe after college, when I’m 22, I’ll have better maturity to decide what I want for my life,” he said. With that in mind, he decided to head north to the United States. At Northwestern, he now has enough time to prepare himself for the future, while still playing and practicing tennis at a high level.
The team works together to bring everyone mutual understanding and a sense of inclusion so that different players with different backgrounds can feel at ease practicing and competing together.
Starý recalls the support of his team as he started his rookie season. “The first year was tough. I just came to America and the [transition] has been quite an adjustment.” Starý said. Although he had always wanted to study in a top U.S. university, having classes in English was completely new and challenging for him. Fortunately, time spent with teammates helped him relax and make the adjustment, he said.
Starý is definitely not alone in this.
Abrahamsen has been suffering from a wrist injury since he came to the United States. His English was not good when he arrived either. Abrahamsen admitted that it was hard socializing with his teammates at first, but everyone helped him out with his injury and also in overcoming the language barrier. Now, Abrahamsen stands by the court to cheer his teammates on during games, just like every veteran player does. The camaraderie reinforces the progress he has made.
“It’s a big transition from Norway to the U.S.A., but it’s been going pretty well so far,” Abrahamsen said before a regular practice.
Abrahamsen cannot step onto the court for a while due to his wrist injury but, even so, tennis helps unify the Wildcats with everyone cheering each other on.
“We are all here as a team, so I kind of want all these guys to play well and practice well, because, in a dual match if they lose and I win, it’s not going to make any change. The team will still lose,” Fasano said. Having competed individually in tournaments for years, Fasano realized American college tennis had its unique charm. “It’s tough, but we all try to push each other forward every time, so I think it’s good for friendship and to get closer to people,” he said.
“Being part of the team, we spend a lot of time together,” Brookes added, “You get to learn stuff about each other far quicker than if you weren’t in a team together.”
Swan has his unique strategies for making the most of diversity. “The key is providing tremendous support for all the members of my team,” said the coach. “For the international players, the support and also making them feel comfortable in a new environment allows them to have success on and off the court.”
Swan said he is quite satisfied with the tempo of the team. The biggest challenge of coaching such a diverse team? “There are no challenges,” Swan said, with full confidence.