Montana State University

Spring 2012

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Mountains and Minds

Among the international contingent on MSU's tennis teams are, left to right: Markus Schleuter, Spain; Niklas Brandes, Germany; Lucy Fairbotham, Canada; Andrea De La Torre, Mexico; Paulina Lopez, Mexico; Diego Compos Contreras, Mexico; Gabi Villegas, Colombia; Alberto Fuentes, Mexico; Prithiv Sivasubramaniam, India; Wena Tsan, Malaysia; Char Hjalmarsson, Sweden. Not pictured: Javier Martin-Marillas, Spain.

Tennis is their language April 30, 2012 by Suzi Taylor  • Published 04/30/12

Global tennis connections serve MSU well
At times it seems that it would take Google Translator to conduct practice for Montana State University's tennis teams. The 12 international players on the Bobcat men's and women's teams represent nine different countries, including India, Spain, Malaysia, Colombia, Germany and Sweden, along with the U.S., Mexico and Canada.

And while that might seem odd in a state where newspapers tally how many athletes come from Missoula versus Bozeman, head men's tennis coach Mike Phillips says it's common for universities to have such a diverse tennis line-up.

"Tennis is a world sport," said Phillips, adding that many Division I teams see 60 to 70 percent of their players come from outside the U.S.

Phillips said his first priority is recruiting players from Montana and the Intermountain West. However, he added, many American players want to go someplace warm. For instance, Phillips said, a top player might rather play No. 8 at the University of Southern California than play No. 1 or No. 2 at MSU.

"But if they come to visit, they fall in love with Bozeman," Phillips said.

Such a visit is a luxury unknown to most of the current international Bobcats, many of whom chose MSU sight unseen. Some have a friend or former teammate who played for the 'Cats; others worked with a recruiting agent who recommends schools; others simply emailed out of the blue, as did Charlotta Hjalmarsson of Karlskrona, Sweden. Hjalmarsson, a junior, contacted American schools that interested her, and ending up connecting with MSU women's coach Denise Albrecht, who eventually invited her to join the team.

"Since I was a little girl, I wanted to come to the U.S. to play college tennis," said Hjalmarsson, adding that MSU's reputation and outdoor opportunities helped solidify her decision.

Hjalmarsson said the first few days at MSU required some adjustments, such as sharing a dorm room with a stranger who spoke a different language. But, she said, being part of the tennis team eased the transition.

"Denise is a great help keeping everyone together and to make us all feel comfortable," Hjalmarsson said. "Her door is always open for us, and she always wants the best for the team. We have a lot of fun together."

Prithiv Sivasubramaniam, a sophomore on the men's team from the tropical state of Tamil Nadu, India, agreed that the team camaraderie made for a fairly easy transition. "P," as teammates call him, had traveled throughout the world but had never been to the U.S. when he first set foot in Bozeman in fall 2009. Sivasubramaniam learned about MSU from a friend from India who played MSU tennis a few years back.

"He sent a few pictures of the university and Bozeman, and that kind of took my mind off all the other universities," Sivasubramaniam said. "Bozeman was a good fit for me."

Though Sivasubramaniam had never lived in a snowy climate, he said he settled in comfortably at MSU and appreciates how fun and interactive his business management classes are. Key to success, he said, are friendships from both the men's and women's teams.

"Everyone gets along very well," he said. "Everyone's really helpful if you're struggling on or off the court. Practice is the best part of the day."

Sophomore Wena Tsan is also a long way from home, having come to MSU from Kuching, Malaysia, on the recommendation of her sister, who played tennis for Sacramento State.

"My sister said the head coach (Denise Albrecht) seems like a super nice person...and she was right," Tsan said.

Tsan admitted she was a bit overwhelmed upon landing in Bozeman last fall. Her home city has a population of more than a half-million. But Tsan said she quickly fell in love with Bozeman and the friendliness of MSU staff, students and even strangers.

"I've traveled around the States quite a bit, and I have never come across people nicer than here in the Bozeman community," she said.

"We may be from different parts of the world with different cultures and backgrounds, but the Bobcat tennis team is more than a team- It's a family." - Wena Tsan

The real key, though, Tsan said, was the tennis team and coaches. "We may be from different parts of the world with different cultures and backgrounds, but the Bobcat tennis team is more than a team--it is a family," she said. "This is like our second home. We care about each other and we fulfill each others' needs."

Alberto Fuentes, of Mexico City, echoed similar statements.

Fuentes learned about MSU from former Bobcat Federico Ueltschi, who met Fuentes in Mexico and encouraged him to check out MSU.

Fuentes said "the enthusiasm, positivity and encouragement" from Mike Phillips made MSU an easy decision, one that he's never regretted. "I see each one (of my teammates) as brothers," said Fuentes. "When I'm with them, I feel no difference on where each one of us is from."

Fuentes said Phillips along with Phillips' wife, Ginger, who assists in coaching the women's team, have opened their hearts and home to the teams.

"Mike does a great job bringing the team together and making us feel as family," he said. Fuentes added that because tennis is such an international sport, each current Bobcat has experience playing with people from other countries, thus making first impressions less shocking.

The team camaraderie has worked well for Bobcat tennis: the men's team won three consecutive Big Sky Conference titles (2004-2006) behind the leadership of international players such as Ueltschi, originally from Argentina, and Marek Gebicki of Poland.

But Phillips is just as proud of his team's academic achievements. Gebicki was an Academic All-American with a 3.99 grade-point average in industrial engineering, and Ueltschi was a three-time Big Sky Conference MVP. Last spring, graduating senior Esteban Ferrero of Colombia won a prestigious NCAA post-graduate fellowship, as well as scholarships from the Lambda Alpha national honor society for anthropology majors and from the Phi Kappa Phi national honor society. Phillips says his team is consistently among MSU's top teams for average GPA, currently about a 3.5.

Phillips said that, even though Montana is several thousand miles away from home for many Bobcat players, transitions are easier because so many international players have traveled widely and are accustomed to being away from home. Albrecht added that recruiting international students does take a little longer, and that the coaching staff must rely on phone calls and emails to get to know each athlete. Albrecht said speaking with the players' parents also helps fill in the gaps.

The athletes and coaches on the Bobcat tennis teams insist that playing with such diverse teammates is simply no big deal.

"I love how the team comes together," said Phillips. "Including the players and coaches, there's nine different backgrounds, nine religions, and five languages. The guys are incredibly accepting and respectful of each other. They work toward a common goal, and come together as a family."

Fuentes agreed: "In spite of the different personalities, languages and cultural backgrounds, we all have the same mentality, language and passion in the courts, which makes us fit perfectly as a team," he said.

Sivasubramaniam concurs.

"We communicate through tennis, so (cultural differences) don't matter," he said. "Tennis is our language."