Two of the pros on my staff at Pine Hollow Country Club, Jorge Alfonzo and Asel Jumamukhambetova, come from similar backgrounds. They both hail from countries that don’t have large populations on Long Island (Venezuela and Kazakhstan, respectively), they both start on the college tennis teams at D1 colleges in Tennessee (Tennessee Tech at University of Tennessee and Martin, respectively), and they are two of the nicest people one will ever meet.
With the college search for tennis players becoming such a daunting task, I asked them a few questions that can give a little insight into their college choice, their growth as tennis players in America, and playing with other internationals players on their respective college teams as they often refer to their fellow teammates.
Asel, how do you go from Atyran, Kazakhstan and end up landing in college in Tennessee?
Asel Jumamukhambetova: When I was in 10th grade, I decided that I wanted to play tennis in college. Since we don’t have college sports in Kazakhstan, I sent videos of me playing tennis to some universities in the United States. When the coach from The University of Tennessee at Martin contacted me via Skype, I really liked him and what he spoke about the program, and I made my decision to attend UT Martin.
I noticed that the team at Tennessee-Martin has eight players, all from different nations. How does that dynamic work for your team? Do you all get along?
Jumamukhambetova: Yes, we had only one American on the team when I got there, but she has since graduated. Now, the entire team is comprised of international players from England, Spain, Turkey, Russia, Ukraine, Japan, Germany, and I am from Kazakhstan. We are pretty close with one other, and I am very lucky to have those girls around me. It was never a problem that all of us are from different countries. We like learning each other’s languages and cultures, and I think that makes for a healthy team chemistry.
Jorge, your team won the Ohio Valley Conference and played in the NCAA Division 1 Tournament this year. How was that experience?
Jorge Alfonzo: The experience was amazing. This is the second time we had the chance to go to the NCAA Tournament, and it feels great having the opportunity to play such an important tournament against top-ranked U.S. schools. It was not easy to get to the NCAAs. It takes a lot of effort and teamwork to accomplish such an important goal.
What are other options for high-school aged kids from Venezuela or Kazakhstan looking to continue their tennis careers?
Alfonzo: In Venezuela, kids don’t have the chance to play team sports, so the only way to participate in a sport is by being a member of a club or just play for themselves.
Jumamukhambetova: Since we do not have high school or college teams for any kind of sports in Kazakhstan, children who want to play tennis have to become professional players or just play for themselves. This is why most of the players have to decide between tennis and education when they reach the age of 18 or 19.
Is it hard to assimilate at a university when you are a continent away from your homeland?
Alfonzo: It wasn’t that difficult for me, because I came to U.S with a good base of English. My friends and professors helped me a great deal in improving my English.
Jumamukhambetova: I had a little trouble at the beginning of my freshman year because of the language barrier. But overall, I have adapted well. Good friends and a good coach can make you feel comfortable at any place.
What would you say to people who think American tennis scholarships should go only to American players?
Alfonzo: I would say that is good to give international students scholarships because in one way or another, scholarships should be awarded to the athletes with the best skills, no matter where they come from.
Jumamukhambetova: I agree with Jorge. I also think it creates more competition which can help American tennis, and increase the standards for what it takes to become a collegiate tennis player in the United States.
Ricky Becker is the Director of Tennis at Pine Hollow Country Club. He independently coaches high-performance juniors and adults of all-levels year-round at Bethpage Park Tennis Center. He has coached hundreds of ranked junior players. As a player, Becker was awarded Most Valuable Player for the 1996 NCAA Championship Stanford Tennis Team and 1989-1992 Roslyn High School Tennis Teams, and was ranked number four in the United States in the 18 & Under Division.