Marco Comuzzo (left) owns a 22-10 record going into the Big West-leading Mustangs' final regular season match against UC Santa Barbara on Saturday.
Marco Comuzzo (left) owns a 22-10 record going into the Big West-leading Mustangs’ final regular season match against UC Santa Barbara on Saturday.
Marco Comuzzo (left) owns a 22-10 record going into the Big West-leading Mustangs’ final regular season match against UC Santa Barbara on Saturday.

Jefferson P. Nolan

There are two things men’s tennis player Marco Comuzzo wants to make clear.

Yes, his accent is real. And no, he’s no Aussie.

South African by birth, the lefty tennis player spent his days competing in the scenic country of New Zealand before coming to San Luis Obispo. But sometimes when the tennis team heads to the bars on a matchless weekend, a handful of girls ask Comuzzo if his accent is fake. They guess it is Australian.

“You just play around with it,” Comuzzo said with a curt grin. “Sometimes we just tell some of the guys to fake an accent to see how many people buy it. Sometimes it can get a little annoying I guess, but it’s fun.”

The junior tennis player may be a Kiwi, but he has made a new home in San Luis Obisopo, a place that turns out not to be too different from the land in which he was raised.

After graduating high school in 2009, the prospective tennis star took a year to travel the world and play the game he loved in countries a little more than a stone’s throw from the pristine coastline of New Zealand.

And after seven months apart from his family, it became decision time — Comuzzo had to start thinking about colleges.

Welcome to America

The New Zealander had never been to the United States, and in 2010, a brief recruitment trip to San Luis Obispo was all it took to capture his attention.

“I didn’t want to choose between studying and tennis,” Comuzzo said. “America is the only place where you can do both. I kind of sent out a few emails to coaches, and you can kind of gauge their response and follow up with the ones that seem the most promising.”

The men’s tennis coach at the time was Justin McGrath, but after Comuzzo’s freshman year, the head coach resigned after a full-blown NCAA investigation regarding his program.

Scholarship reductions led to controversy with players on the team, and the university sustained a $1,200 fine preceding McGrath’s resignation.

“There were a few empty scholarships from what I heard,” Comuzzo said. “A few guys before me got stung pretty hard. It’s really tough on them, and it’s really expensive. Luckily, a lot of them ended up staying here. It was a messy thing to go through.”

Before McGrath took his leave, however, Comuzzo posted a 14-6 dual match record and was named co-Big West Freshman of the Year.

But when Nick Carless was hired as head coach of the tennis team, Comuzzo and his teammates were in for a rude awakening.

Best excuse to get out of practice

At the banquet held by the Cal Poly athletics program last year, Comuzzo walked away with an award after recounting an incident during the team’s first practice of the 2011-12 season.

DJ Tiësto, a well-known Dutch musician, was performing at local Avila Beach during the men’s tennis practice time. Carless had just taken over the program, and the players did not know what to expect from him — their last coach was apparently rather relaxed.

Comuzzo, in his thick Kiwi accent, arrived on his first day of practice and “told” his coach that he and a few upperclassmen were going to leave an hour early from practice.

Sophomore tennis player Naveen Beasley was a freshman at the time, and he will never forget the look on Carless’ face.

“He got as red as my water bottle,” Beasley said, holding up his Cal Poly Powerade bottle. “‘Are you serious right now?’ (Carless) said. ‘Is this how the program goes?’”

Thus began a paradigm shift for the tennis team.

“All of my guys are characters; they’re all funny,” Carless said with a grin. “I think that just shows you his attitude a year and a half ago to where he is now. He’s serious about training, about practice, about putting in the hard work and improving his game and fitness ability.”

The year Comuzzo told his coach he would skip practice was the same year the Mustangs claimed their first Big West title in program history.

“It was the best feeling I think I will ever have in college,” Comuzzo said. “To do it with all these guys … it was a pretty emotional thing to go through. To have (Carless) here has made the difference for us as a team and as a program at Cal Poly.”

Stepping up to ‘line two’

Now in the heart of conference matches, the business administration junior has become one of Cal Poly’s most valuable assets on the court. With the injuries of senior co-captain Jordan Bridge and junior Jurgen De Jager, Comuzzo has stepped-up to fill the position of “line two” behind Cal Poly’s Andre Dome, who is ranked No. 25 in the nation.

Brian McPhee, the current volunteer assistant tennis coach, was captain of the team during the Mustangs’ 2011-12 campaign. McPhee saw Comuzzo excel as a freshman, and now, he is witnessing the progression of a player who is making his way in to a leadership role.

“Marco’s got about every shot in the book,” McPhee said. “He is an explosive player, and he’s setting himself in the right direction. We’ve had some injuries on the team, and he’s really stepped up to the plate.”

This Saturday, the men’s team will travel to Isla Vista to take on rival UC Santa Barbara in the final matchup of the regular season. And with the aid of the junior lefty, Carless is confident his team will once again contend for a Big West championship ring.

“In these next conference matches, he’s going to help us out tremendously,” Carless said. “As (Comuzzo) is getting more confidence in himself, he’s getting more confidence to not only be the player that he wants to be, but the leader that he wants to be.”

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