Temple's tennis program has a long tradition of excellence. Both the men's and women's teams have hoisted conference trophies and seen individual champions in their ranks. As the Owls play the 2016 season, one of the noteworthy elements of this edition is the international flavor.
Eight men and five women join the team from outside the United States. Many of them traveled similar paths to get into tennis, often through family connections. Both junior Anais Nussaume and men's graduate coach Maros Januvka grew up with the sport. Januvka's father played in his native Slovakia, while Nussaume's mother operated a tennis club in Thailand. Nussaume joined the sport reluctantly after watching her sister play.
"I started to play, I wasn't too bad at it, and I stuck with it, and I have been playing every day since I was 10," said Nussaume.
Tennis isn't very popular in Thailand so she spent her senior year playing in France. Both Nussaume and Januvka reached out to American universities and discovered Temple through recruiting.
Seven different countries are represented on the men's side and four on the women's side, with both teams boasting a pair from the same nation (Florian Mayer and Nicolas Paulus from Germany on the men's team, and Alina Abdurakhimova and Yana Khon from Uzbekistan on the women's). Oftentimes a coach will ask members of a current roster about players they've faced back home. As Januvka notes, "It's sometimes very hard when you recruit players outside the U.S. to know what their level is. When you have that roster of international students, it helps you bring in new players and assess what their skill level is."
Recruiting players from the same country or geographical region makes it easier for the transition of play and culture to the international players.
"Even if they don't speak the same language, they have some similarities and students will bond closer with each other. I think that helps to bring players on the team," Januvka said.
Even with fellow countrymen on a team, going from individual tennis in the junior ranks to collegiate play in America creates a challenge to most foreign student-athletes. Both Nussaume and Januvka spent time in Europe before coming to America and consumed American media, but the transition was a bit jarring. Januvka mentioned a noticeable difference was how people interact in the United States versus Slovakia.
"I think people in Europe are much more closed and slower to establish relationships, especially in Eastern Europe," Januvka said. "It's not going to happen that you interact with a person two minutes in class and the next day he's like 'hey, what's up? we have a class together, how's it going?' Back home, you really have to know people a long time. For me it was a shock that this person was talking to me when we barely know each other."
Nussaume was used to jumping into another culture after studying at CNED in France for a year. When she arrived at Temple, she was more surprised about how little the campus resembled schools she saw in American movies and television.
"I saw schools with huge fraternities and it's not at all the same like in Hollywood. I thought people would eat hot dogs and hamburgers all day and there would be cafe booths and huge cars," said Nussaume. "I think that's what every international student thinks because that's what we see in movies. It's really misleading."
For student-athletes transitioning to collegiate play, the changes in style and responsibility often present the greatest challenges. In tennis, many who join American schools from Europe have to adjust to playing on clay courts at home to hard courts in the States. Clay courts, like the ones Januvka played on at home, often slows down the ball and changes spin, asking players to focus more on skill shots over the speed and strength hard courts favor. Nussaume did mention the concept shift from individual play that dominates international tennis to the team game in college.\
"Tennis is an individual sport instead of a team sport. You just go out there and mind your own business," said Nussaume. "You have to do your best and others will follow it. Everyone just does their best and as a team, you're going to do well."
Januvka mentioned the importance of team sports in the American landscape is partly why tennis has seen more European dominance in the past decade. Part of that shift is tennis enjoys less airtime in the United States. "If you come to Europe and you turn on the TV back home, you can find a channel with a tennis tournament on. When I turn on ESPN or another sports channel here, it's always football, basketball, baseball. Tennis you only see during the U.S. Open or another major tournament. The sport is marketed differently here."
Head coach Steve Mauro deserves a lot of credit building these contingents to compete at the toughest level of collegiate tennis. The men's side hold a 12-4 record and opened American play with wins over East Carolina and UConn. The women's team sits at 7-4 after defeating conference foe East Carolina and shutouts of Binghamton and Marist earlier this month.
Januvka sees the strong play and stronger camaraderie among Temple tennis as a way to continue the tradition of recruiting excellent international student-athletes.
"Getting used to playing with other players for a position on the team or in the lineup, pushing each other, cheering for each other, that was a very different aspect that I had to get used to. I think what made it an easier adjustment was my international teammates," said Januvka. "I think that's why Temple has and will have a lot of international players on the team. They understand themselves and their role. They're very inclusive and help you a lot with the transition from your culture to the new culture."