International tennis players follow bouncing ball to Huntington

Kreg Eckert (left), head coach of the Huntington University men’s tennis team, listens to a question from one of his players, Ignacio Poncio (right), while one of his other players, Giovanni Martinez, looks on. Poncio and Martinez hail from Argentina and Mexico, respectively, and represent two of many players from around the world who discovered Huntington through tennis.
Kreg Eckert (left), head coach of the Huntington University men’s tennis team, listens to a question from one of his players, Ignacio Poncio (right), while one of his other players, Giovanni Martinez, looks on. Poncio and Martinez hail from Argentina and Mexico, respectively, and represent two of many players from around the world who discovered Huntington through tennis. Photos by Steve Clark.

Anastasiia Evstifeeva awakens at her home in St. Petersburg, Russia. She’s got a long journey ahead of her.

The first leg of her trip is a car ride to neighboring Finland; that lasts seven hours. She arrives at an airport and boards a plane bound for Germany. Upon landing, she hops on another flight, this one destined for Canada. By the time that plane is ready to land, she’s been in the air for 15 hours.

The last leg of her trip is a car ride into the United States. It’s an eight-hour trek, but at the end of it, she finally arrives at her destination: Huntington University.

Evstifeeva is a student at Huntington. But what informed her decision to attend a school that’s over 4,500 miles away from home?

The answer: tennis.

Evstifeeva plays on the women’s tennis team at Huntington. Her story is similar to those of other players at the school, many of whom hail from foreign countries and discovered Huntington through the sport.

“I was thinking of applying to schools maybe like in Australia and England and like other countries,” says Evstifeeva. “But I was like, if I go to different countries, not America, I would need to stop playing tennis.”

Evstifeeva, and her fellow international players, note that the United States offers the most opportunities of any country in the world to play collegiate tennis. Naturally, that makes it a destination for such players, who will spend years working toward the goal of seizing one of those opportunities.

One such player is Giovanni Martinez, a Puebla, Mexico, native who’s a member of the men’s tennis team at Huntington.

“I always wanted to come play tennis in the US,” he says. “I didn’t know where, but I knew that I wanted to come and play tennis here.”

Martinez’s reasons for doing so were motivated by on-court and off-court factors alike.

“Most of the best players, they want to come here for the competition and also because, obviously, America is the big first-world country,” he explains. “… People want to come here to have a better opportunity at college and at life, in general.”

Martinez’s teammate, Ignacio Poncio, a Córdoba, Argentina, native, echoes the latter sentiment.

“If you get a degree in the US and then you go back to Argentina, like, you make a difference,” he says.

Outside the US, the experience of learning how to play tennis differs from the process that domestic players are familiar with because most international players don’t have the opportunity to play in high school.

“You go to school just for school; there’s no sports whatsoever,” explains Roger Ferguson, head coach of the Huntington women’s tennis team. “And if you want to play a sport, you have to get on a club team.”

For those players who manage to earn spots on club teams, holding onto those positions can be strenuous, notes Ferguson.

“It’s pretty cutthroat,” he remarks. “If the team’s not winning, they’ll just take people off and bring in new.”

To keep up with their peers in such a hyper-competitive environment, Ferguson states that it’s not uncommon for international players to hire private coaches to develop their skills even further.

Unsurprisingly, one-on-one tutelage coupled with spirited play on club teams proves to be a combination that forges talented players. College coaches in the US, like Kreg Eckert, who leads the Huntington men’s tennis team, can’t help but take notice.

“The talent is a lot better,” says Eckert. “In Indiana, they may have, let’s say – I’m just going to make up numbers – 15 really good players. And I’ll get 75 emails from around the world of players that are as good or better than those 15.

“So, I get a lot more opportunities at better players, internationally.”

To gain exposure to college coaches, international players will sign up with recruiting agencies that promote them, disseminating information about their accomplishments in tennis and academics. Once colleges start to respond, players begin the process of weighing their options.

That process can be a confusing one, though. Martinez says he received offers from Division II, Division III and NAIA schools – but had no idea what any of those designations meant. Poncio was similarly puzzled. He remembers being under the impression that universities were more prestigious than colleges. That innocent misperception informed his initial attraction to Huntington, which was a university while the rest of the schools that contacted him were colleges.

“I had no idea,” confesses Poncio. “So, it says ‘university,’ so it sounds better. So, it’s like, ‘OK, let’s go!’”

For Evstifeeva, her interest in Huntington grew when players who were already at the school took the time to contact her and introduce themselves, which made her feel welcome.

“So, it was like, ‘OK, I already have friends here. So, I’ll go to Huntington,’” she says.

Additionally, Ferguson asked Vladislav Khudziy, a Huntington men’s tennis alum from Russia, if he could reach out to Evstifeeva, in person.

“We had Vlad in Moscow; she was from St. Petersburg,” recalls Ferguson. “We had Vlad drive over, talk to her, introduce (and) tell her about Huntington.

“So, that sealed it for her.”

When international players arrive in Huntington, the language barrier between them and their American peers and coaches proves to be almost nonexistent. As part of enrolling at Huntington, players take the TOEFL test, which assesses their ability to speak and understand English. To get into the school, they must score above a certain threshold.

While all of Huntington’s players passed the test, the process of communicating in English on a regular basis can still prove to be a challenge, at least in the early going.

“I would go to my classes and (the) professor is giving a class,” recounts Martinez, “and I’m like, I have to translate what they’re speaking into Spanish and then think in Spanish and then translate it back into English and speak back.

“It took me about three months, almost a semester, to start talking without thinking what I was going to say in Spanish and then translating it and understanding classes fully without having to think about that all the time.”

Aside from communicating, international players face the more general challenge of adjusting to life in place that’s so far from home. For Meg Dolde, though, a member of the Huntington women’s tennis team from Bad Schoenborn, Germany, that’s a challenge she’s embraced.

“I think it was a great learning experience, to actually step away from home and do things by yourself,” she says, reflecting on her freshman year. “So, at the beginning I was a bit homesick, but I don’t know, I settled in pretty fast and we had the team, we always did stuff together, so most of the time you didn’t even have time to think about home or anything.

“So, more or less, like, the team for me is like my family now.”

Beyond acclimating to living in America, international players must also acclimate to playing American-style tennis. For many players, such as Dolde, the biggest transition is going from competing on clay courts to hard courts, which necessitates a different playing style.

“Clay courts are way slower than hard courts,” Dolde observes. “So, that just makes tennis way more different, because in America if you have one or two good shots, the opponent won’t be able to get to it. So, that’s why all coaches in America say, ‘Play aggressive.’ But then in Germany they say, ‘No, first get the ball in, then build up the point.’ Because if you have good shots in Germany, most people are able to get to the ball, because it’s clay and it’s just slower.

“So, that was a big difference, playing more aggressive.”

Another transition that some players must make is no longer viewing tennis as an individual sport, but a team one.

“That was the toughest point for me, to see it as a team and start realizing that it’s not only me that matters,” says Poncio. “So, if I lose, but the other guys win, I win. But if I win, but the other ones lose, I lose. That’s something that is hard to get in the head of someone that’s been playing tennis by himself their whole life.”

In addition to Poncio and Martinez, other international players on the men’s team include Mariano Echevarria, Peru; Volodymyr Kohut, Ukraine; Mark Lewandowski, Canada; and Rodrigo Manzo, Mexico. Their American teammates are Lucas Buttermore, Niko Rongos, Jacob Shelton and Brody Worl.

Dolde and Evstifeeva’s international peers on the women’s team include Constanze Golz and Charlotte Seth, both from Germany, and Lisa Colling, from the United Kingdom. They play alongside Americans Lanae Singleton and Allison Smith.

Despite all the different countries, Ferguson says the players aren’t so different in the end.

“They’re just tennis players,” he muses. “That’s how we recruit them. That’s how we treat them.”