The Tennis Migration : In the Search for Court Talent, Coaches are Leaving No Country Unturned

Times Staff Writer

Universities in Southern California are raiding England, Spain, West Germany and Greece and are looking to Hong Kong, Japan, Australia, the Philippines, Canada, Mexico, South Africa and India as sources of tennis talent for their collegiate programs.

"It's the big trend in college tennis today," said Jamie Sanchez, men's and women's coach at Loyola Marymount for 13 years. "In order to compete with the talent in the United States, teams have had to go to the European market."

Pepperdine has five foreigners on its men's team: Gilberto Cicero, Enrique Guajardo and Augustine Moreno, all from Mexico, Grant Saacks from South Africa and Marty Laurendeau from Canada. The Waves' women's team has Ei Iida from Japan, Nicole Lusty from England and Marisa Sanchez from Spain.

Australian Brett Greenwood and Mark Ferreira from India play for the UCLA men, while Patricia Hy of Hong Kong plays for the women. The USC women's team, top-ranked in the nation, has Heliane Steden from West Germany and Claudia Hernandez from Mexico.

Loyola Marymount has a West German, Chris Ullman, while Cal State L. A. and Cal Poly Pomona each have a foreign-born woman, Edna Olivarez of the Philippines and Xenia Anastasiadou of Greece, respectively.

Although collegiate soccer and gymnastics have had a steady influx of foreign athletes for several years, the phenomenon is fairly new in tennis. As recently as five years ago, many of the top foreign players turned professional soon after high school.

But the cream of that crop is now coming to American universities. Some have been recruited to help weaker programs reach parity with more powerful schools, while others have sought American campuses to enjoy the dual benefit of an education with tennis.

Ullman, 22, who mainly plays No. 3 singles for Loyola, was a member of the German national team, which he said was a stressful situation.

"They put a lot of money into the players," said Ullman, a premed/pre-dental major. "And they want good results. If you don't win, you're cut off.

"The advantage in the United States is if you're very good, you get sponsored and still get an education. In Germany, if you turn pro, that's it. There's no turning back to education."

Coach Sanchez said Ullman's class schedule, especially biology laboratories, has made him miss several matches, which "weakens the team considerably." But he said Ullman and other foreign players of his caliber fill a void created by less proficient domestic players.

"It's not that the talent is not here in the United States, but it has dropped off," he said. "It's a quick fix for a program to go out and get a really good foreign player."

Dave Borelli, who has coached the USC women's team to seven national championships since 1977, said that the level of talent in the U. S. is "weak compared to other years" and that women's tennis here has grown stagnant. He said most of the young, home-grown players are clones of Chris Evert Lloyd.

"What you have are ground-strokers and base-line players," Borelli said. "They're trying to be like Chris, but, of course, there aren't too many like her.

"So the average player is really limited in what she can do. I can't believe how weak doubles players are now compared to six or seven years ago."

Borelli said that the foreign player's game is more well-rounded and multidimensional. He said she can rally from the baseline, a la Lloyd, and can serve and volley a la Martina Navratilova.

In his 11 years at USC, however, Borelli has recruited only one foreign player, Hernandez, a sophomore from Guadalajara who has played for Mexico's Federation Cup team for the past four years.

Steden, a two-time All-American who is ranked No. 4 in the college poll, is the Trojans' only other import. A senior who was born in West Germany but has spent most of her life in Mexico, Steden has played for the Mexican Federation Cup team since 1983 and won a bronze medal in the 1983 Pan American Games.

Steden said she decided to come to college after seeing so many promising tennis players turn professional at 16 and not make it.

"Then what are you supposed to do with the rest of your life?" she asked. "Tennis can't be the only thing to focus on."

She said she will turn pro after graduation but needs the college experience to mature, increase mental toughness and give her the security of something to fall back on. Those sentiments were echoed by several other foreign players.

Hy (pronounced He ), an All-American at UCLA in 1984, was born in Cambodia but moved to Hong Kong where she became the colony's No. 1 player, representing Hong Kong in the 1984 Olympics.

Hy, 20, a 5-4 sophomore who sat out last season with shoulder injuries, first came to the U. S. for a summer tennis camp nine years ago.

She said her father, Hy Ny, a former member of Cambodia's Davis Cup team, saw her potential and sent her to the States to improve her skills. After all, she said, Hong Kong was not exactly a hotbed of tennis.

After two years as an amateur playing on the pro circuit, her ranking on the computer shot up to 59th, thanks to a win in the junior doubles at Wimbledon and a berth in the junior singles finals. But Hy chose to forgo a career temporarily for college.

"My parents have never been to college," she said. "They want me to have better education than they had. But they want my tennis to improve. It was the biggest problem of my first 17 years."

She said several of her friends at Bradenton Academy, the Florida high school where she prepped, turned pro after graduation and received no further education.

Said Hy: "I wanted more than just tennis."

Most countries simply do not offer the opportunity to mix academics and athletics--it's one or the other. When the message spread of that rare combination in the United States, it became a game of follow-the-leader to American schools.

"Once you finish high school in Australia, you either have to play tennis full time or study," said Greenwood of Brisbane, a junior on the UCLA men's team. "There's nothing like there is here."

Greenwood, who set a UCLA record with 30 victories in singles last season and is a co-captain this year, said he opted for school rather than trying to turn pro to avoid "putting all of my eggs in one basket."

He said tennis is so tough and competitive now that it's not as easy to make a living at it as it once was. So Greenwood, an economics major, wanted an education to fall back on if he flopped as a pro.

Greenwood said he believes that the flood of foreign tennis players onto American campuses is getting ridiculous.

"Maybe as a foreigner I shouldn't be saying this, but I think there should be some limit on how many foreign players can come in," he said with an accent so slight that his family says he sounds like a Yank. "Some teams we play are half and half."

Pepperdine is heavily accented with foreign players. Three of the seven players on the women's team are foreigners and five of the 16 men are imports.

"We just don't have anything for tennis over there," said Lusty, a sophomore from London who plays No. 4 singles at Pepperdine. "Education is No. 1 there. So if you want to play tennis and study as well, you must come to the States."

Lusty said she played as an amateur on the pro circuit for about two years but "missed out on the education" and felt that she needed something else in her life.

She said she can play as much tennis here as in England and go to school. The 5-foot-10 communications major said her studies act as a pressure-release valve since her life doesn't revolve solely around tennis anymore.

Sanchez, a junior from Barcelona, said she came to the U. S. to not only get an education but to find out how good she is in tennis.

"I was feeling pressure in Spain," said Sanchez, who was the No. 2-ranked junior and No. 7-ranked woman. "Americans have a reputation for being such good tennis players. I thought I might not be as good."

She too said her country's universities are 100% academic institutions and she would have been forced to choose between education and tennis. Her brother, Emilio, was being recruited by Pepperdine three years ago, and when Coach Allen Fox called to talk to Emilio about a scholarship she asked about one for herself.

Her brother refused the offer, turned pro and is now ranked 60th in the world. She received a scholarship offer two weeks before classes began. It didn't take her long to pack her bags.

Yet she soon learned something many other foreigners discover--English isn't as easy to master as a top-spin lob.

"I thought I knew English. I was studying grammar since I was little. But I didn't know anything. I could understand, but I couldn't talk."

Anastasiadou, 19, of Athens is Cal Poly Pomona's prize foreign recruit. The freshman, who was ranked third in Greece and plays No. 1 for the Bronco women, had to work overtime to adjust to English.

"Everyone tells me I speak good English, but sometimes it's hard to express myself," she said, gesturing with her hands as if grasping for just the right word. "I hear in English, but think in Greek."

Laurendeau, who plays No. 3 for the Pepperdine men and is ranked No. 37 in the collegiate poll, had a lot of trouble with English. He had spent his entire academic life in French-speaking schools in Montreal.

"I had to put in double time," said Laurendeau, a junior majoring in psychology. "I had a lot of catching up to do. Everything was so foreign to me."

Laurendeau, who came to the Malibu campus as a walk-on, said he never considered turning professional. He said he did not start playing tennis until he was 15, having been preoccupied with hockey. He earned a No. 2-rating in the junior division after just six months of play but said that could have been a little deceiving.

"Junior development (in Canada) is very bad," he said. "There's only about 30 or 40 guys that play good tennis. The interest is mainly with older people who love to play and watch the game. That's why we don't have many people doing well professionally.

"But in the four years I've been here, Canada's best juniors have come to universities here in the United States. People that stay in Canada don't develop as fast, and a lot of young kids are looking forward to coming to the States for the opportunity to combine tennis and school."

Despite the eagerness of foreigners to come here and coaches to land a franchise builder, the steady flow of foreign athletes may be blocked by perhaps an impenetrable dam constructed by the National Collegiate Athletic Assn.

Beginning next year, the NCAA will require foreign students to score 700 on the Scholastic Aptitude Tests. While that is not a high score for an American student, it is no easy accomplishment for someone not comfortable in English.

"We're recruiting a girl from Mexico now and I don't know if she'll pass the English requirement," Coach Borelli said.

Olivarez, a freshman at Cal State L. A., was the Philippines' under-18 champion. But her coach, Tom Yamaguchi, said that it was difficult to get Olivarez into the university, even before the rule change.

Yamaguchi said Olivarez had to take five tests, including a high school equivalency test and the SAT, before she was admitted.

"Foreign kids don't even know what an SAT is," he said. "For Edna, each test was life and death, school or no school.

"But the foreign student-athlete that makes it will be very dedicated and strong-willed. I don't know of too many high school kids here that would take that many tests to go to a college--any college."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
65°