By Bethany Bradsher
East Carolina is a pretty diverse campus, but to find the most eclectic slice of the student body just stroll down to the tennis courts, where players from Norway, Belgium, Slovakia, France and Switzerland compete and study as Pirates.
This year nine of the 22 men’s and women’s tennis scholarship players are international students parlaying their athletic skills into an education in the States. It’s an arrangement that benefits ECU as well. Stocking its rosters with international talent can add victories and bolster the school’s reputation in Division I tennis. It’s a trend evident in several Olympic collegiate sports, notably golf and swimming, but international recruiting has a firmer grip on tennis nationwide than any other sport.
“It’s out there, and I think that from a men’s and women’s tennis standpoint it’s very hard to be competitive with an all-American team,” says ECU women’s coach Tom Morris. “I think you see more schools today that are competing with all international players than you would see schools that are competing with all American players.”
While the internationalization of college tennis does have its critics—people who consider it unfair to American players to send so many scholarships overseas—coaches like Morris say that the field of elite American tennis players is too small to put together competitive teams. And when international players are blended with the best domestic athletes, smaller Division I schools find themselves in a position to topple giants.
“It evens the playing field, to a great extent,” Morris says. “A couple of years ago, Winthrop beat N.C. State in women’s tennis with an international team. They’re going to other countries and finding players that are as good as the American players.”
Around-the-world recruiting isn’t limited to mid-major schools like ECU. Southern Cal and Georgia have each won two men’s tennis national titles in the past four years; this year USC has four internationals and Georgia has three. In women’s tennis, only Stanford—the national champion four out of the past six years—has an all-American squad. Duke, the 2009 champion, has two foreign players this season.
The ECU men’s tennis team had an overall 18-8 record last year and attracted notice on campus by compiling a 7-1 home record. Likewise, women’s tennis completed last season with an 18-10 record and was 8-1 in home events. But neither team got past the first round of the conference tournament.
Half and half
Men’s head coach Shawn Heinchon does everything he can to recruit the top local and regional players to the program, but the top recruits have their pick of colleges and usually commit to larger programs. He tries to keep his international-to-American ratio at about 50-50.
“We coach a global sport,” he says. “We need to have those international guys for us to stay competitive. If we have access to some of those American players, we would take that person first. If we had 11 international players on our roster I think we would be doing something wrong.”
Despite the movement toward more diverse rosters, the Pirate tennis coaches must work within the same recruiting budget as their colleagues in other sports. As a result, Morris has never made a single home visit for an international recruit, relying instead on the Internet and European tennis organizations that organize American college tours for top players.
The three international players currently on the women’s team and a former player who is Morris’ assistant coach all chose ECU after visiting the campus during one of those tours. Subsequent long-distance contact with Morris sealed the deal. He can learn almost anything about a player’s competitive ability online, and even watch videos of his recruits in action.
“I probably get one e-mail a day from an international player, maybe more than that,” he says. “And it’s all on YouTube, so you can watch them, you can see their results, you know who they’ve beaten and you can watch a video of them playing from your office.”
Heinchon does take infrequent trips to Europe and can often combine recruiting trips with personal vacations with friends who live there. But he says there is no one tactic to attract top international players. He says he’s found great recruits while traveling overseas but more often he makes contact through the Internet, through U.S. tours arranged by international recruiting service or at world junior tennis tournaments that invite top players to compete in the States.
European athletes have been coming to East Carolina for many years. The noted film director Antti Jokien ’92 came here from Finland in 1988 on a basketball scholarship.
‘I missed my family’
Swiss national Manon Bissat first came to Greenville two years ago during a whirlwind college tour. Organized by a European coach, the tour took Bissat and future ECU teammate Petra Vogel, also of Switzerland, to 11 American universities in 10 days. Incredibly, Bissat was able to distinguish East Carolina from the crowd of first impressions as one of her favorite schools, and she scheduled a January 2010 official visit to campus with her parents.
The visit was an unqualified disaster. A snow and ice storm hit Greenville just before Bissat and her parents flew here from Switzerland, and on the drive from the airport in Washington, D.C., to Greenville Bissat’s mother left her purse, containing their money and passports, in a restaurant. They finally recovered the purse and made it to Greenville, only to get in a wreck on their way into town. The weather was too foul for Bissat to see anything but the indoor practice facility, and then they were stranded in the airport for three days trying to fly home.
Still, Bissat saw enough to know that she wanted to be a Pirate. “I really liked Coach [Morris],” she says. Since her arrival in August, Bissat has participated in an intense conditioning program and played in three preliminary tournaments that are essentially a warm-up to the heart of the tennis season, which runs from February to April. She has enjoyed getting to know her teammates and absorbing the American traditions, but she has missed home more than she expected.
“The most challenging thing was to be not with my family,” she says. “I didn’t think it was going to be like this. I thought, it’s going to be four and a half months, it’s not too long. I thought I was not going to be homesick. I really liked the team and so on. Everything was perfect, it was just that I missed my family.”
Home away from home
Assistant women’s tennis coach Luiza Borges, who grew up in Portugal, is fully transplanted in Greenville now, six years after she arrived as an unsure freshman like Bissat. After completing a successful tennis career and earning her degree in 2009, she decided to stick around for graduate school and a job as an assistant coach. She remembers not knowing the proper way to greet her new coach and teammates and still is occasionally jarred by the cultural differences.
“After a month I was ready to go back, it was really different,” Borges says. “The food is really different, and the manners. Back home when we meet somebody we give two kisses; here, it’s more personal space, like you’re in a bubble. That was kind of hard for me, but I got used to it after a semester.”
Bissat’s teammate, Audrey LePottier, didn’t originally plan to be a Pirate; she came from her home in Paris in 2009 to play for High Point University. But that school cancelled its tennis program just months after she arrived, and the coach there contacted Morris to see if he had a roster spot for her. Morris had seen her play and was impressed.
LePottier says her adjustment to the U.S. was rockier than that of some of her international teammates because she spoke no English when she arrived. Following class lectures was nearly impossible in those early months. But after more than a year of immersion in an English-speaking world, LePottier earned a 3.7 GPA in her first semester at ECU.
Academic all stars
Many international students do so well in the classroom that it’s easy to forget the professor is not speaking their native tongue. Junior Petra Vogel of Switzerland earned a 3.8 last year and received a Conference- USA commissioner’s academic medal.
On the men’s team, Jaroslav Horvath came to Greenville from Slovakia and proceeded to finish his bachelor’s degree in three years. Now he’s working toward a master’s in economics while he plays out his final year of eligibility.
“I’m amazed with the kids who have come here,” Morris says. “They’re good kids, they’re good athletes and they’re great students.”
Massimo Mannino, who makes his home in Interlaken, Switzerland, was mainly looking for a good college education when he started to send e-mails to American tennis coaches, but he knew that a scholarship would make that dream much more tenable. When he chose East Carolina after an e-mail correspondence with Heinchon, he committed his next four years to a country he had never even visited.
“I had never been to the U.S. before, and I didn’t really know what to expect,” says Mannino, who is majoring in quantitative economics and, like Horvath, is on track to finish in three years and start graduate school. “I did know some through the Internet, and I had a couple of friends who had come here and told me about it.”
Upperclassmen like Horvath and Mannino know they have a responsibility when new undergraduate recruits come to ECU; they become de facto tour guides and counselors for their teammates who are beginning their cultural transition.
Welcome to America
The foreign players each describe something different as their “I’m really living in the U.S.” moment. For Henrik Skalmerud, it was seeing American football for the first time. Simon Escourrou found the structure of the classes and the assignments to be very different from classes in France. Borges, the women’s assistant coach, was pleasantly surprised by the camaraderie of team tennis, because the European version of the sport is focused on the individual.
For freshman Joran Vliegen, who arrived in August from Belgium, the chief adjustment has been getting used to two hours of practice a day plus conditioning. He also says he’s surprised by how friendly the store clerks are in Greenville.
“When you enter a store, everybody says, ‘Hey, how are you?’” Vliegen says. “Back home, you go in and get your stuff, and nobody talks to you.”
Morris has watched dozen of international students adjust to living the States, and he thinks the ones that have the hardest time are kids from cosmopolitan areas. For Audrey LePottier, who grew up in a tony suburb of Paris, there is a huge cultural and gastronomical gap between home and eastern North Carolina.
“Normally the kids I’ve had from Paris have a hard time making the transition to Greenville,” Morris says. “They have the French Riviera, we have the Tar River. There are no cafes on the street corners. They have the Eiffel Tower, we have a water tower.”
But America has unique attractions. Stian Tvedt transferred to ECU in 2009 from Hofstra University, seeking a more competitive tennis program and a warmer climate. He chose to be a Pirate because Skalmerud, his friend and fellow Norwegian, was already here. They share an apartment off campus and a friendship that gives them a taste of home.
Although they didn’t know about the Thanksgiving holiday, they spent it like most Americans, albeit far from home. “You guys spend it with family, we got to spend it with our family here, which is our friends,” Skalmerud says. Then Tvedt and Skalmerud joined a group of other Norwegian athletes playing in the States for a classic American pilgrimage.
“You have to go (to Las Vegas) at some time,” he says with a laugh.