In 2022, the Cal Poly men’s tennis team finished tied with UC Santa Barbara for the regular season crown following last season, where they won the regular season title outright after going undefeated in the Big West.
Much of the greatness from this year’s squad came from their ability to play as a team. Tennis at its core is an individual game, but head coach Nick Carless has been relentless in instilling the idea that tennis at the collegiate level is a team sport.
“There also is the extreme importance of getting those guys to come together and want to play just as much for themselves as they do for the guy next to him, and even more so,” Carless said. “I think most players that have played for me will say that I’m a very fair, but extremely demanding coach. I am very kind of hard-headed in my ways of believing how important the team culture is.”
Many of the individual players that contribute to Cal Poly’s success are international and came to America to play tennis for the Mustangs. Looking from the outside, it is easy to view all of the players through the same lens, but coming from a different country and environment presents a whole new set of challenges for these athletes to deal with.
Whether it’s adapting to a new school and community, leaving behind family and friends or dealing with a language barrier, these players have worked hard just to be in this position — let alone be successful.
There are five players on the roster who have come from other countries to play for the Mustangs: freshman Bastiaan Weststrate from Voorschoten, Netherlands, graduate Hendrik Inno from Someru, Estonia, redshirt sophomore Fernando Fonseca from Mogi Mirim, Brazil, redshirt sophomore Alexis Delisle from Paris, France and redshirt sophomore Joe Leather from Bath, England.
Leather expressed the challenges of having minimal time to adjust to the American lifestyle before his first season on campus began, saying the first week was the “hardest part.”
“I was in a new place, my parents didn’t come over with me. I just came on the visit on my own, and then four or five weeks later, on New Year’s Eve, I flew over and didn’t know what I was doing. My coach picked me up from the airport and dropped me off at the dorms, and he said ‘there you go,’” Leather said. “I’m so grateful for that, having to figure stuff out for myself.”
These players not only bring different cultural backgrounds and personal perspectives, they also provide a level of dedication that can only be realized by someone in their position, according to Carless.
“I don’t want to say that they’re hungrier than the American kids to pursue that dream, but they realize that it’s special and that it doesn’t exist everywhere,” Carless said. “They tend to come here really having sacrificed a lot, leaving half a world behind. ”
These diverse backgrounds create a diverse locker room which is beneficial for everyone involved in the program, according to Carless.
“It’s another example of learn by doing,” Carless said. “Wake up, be around people that are different than you and work hard towards something together as a group and as a unit. Although you might have tremendously different backgrounds, it’s pretty cool to see. I wouldn’t be able to put a price or a value on how those international students enrich that process for us as coaches, and for those domestic guys on our team. “
Outside of the United States, few players even have the opportunity to play their sport at the collegiate level while also getting an education. So, the opportunity to come to an American university to pursue both of those goals at once is rare.
“What people don’t really realize is in Europe, college is paid for by the government and every student who wants to go that route in Europe can,” Carless said. “They don’t typically offer an opportunity to pursue a degree and play a sport, let alone give a scholarship and get paid to play that sport.”
The Brazilian Fonseca’s journey shows his perseverance in order to get to this point. He came to boarding school in the United States when he was only 13 years old to continue his tennis career, while also continuing his education.
“In Brazil, once you get to highschool, freshman year, it’s really hard to do school and [play] a sport,” Fonseca said. “You kind of have to pick and choose, or go do online schooling which is not what my parents wanted for me. We started looking at options, then the U.S. came as a good opportunity with a good scholarship.”
After his time in boarding school was finished, he made the move to Cal Poly — and the rest is history.
Getting in contact with international student-athletes is not an easy task for coaches or the players, according to Carless. There are such few opportunities for coaches to watch these players in person in part because of the travel, but also due to their demanding schedules with their current team.
Tennis coaches in America can try to mitigate these issues in a few ways. Carless explained that being on a competitive team is one way, as it allows the players to become interested and keep up with certain programs they are drawn to. Programs have also utilized former players who have become coaches in their own right to find out about and stay up-to-date with prospects.
Carless went on to detail another method he uses to find international talent.
“[It’s a] combination of having contacts around the world that are maybe coaches, but also people that are running these — and have created these — recruiting services and these businesses that will almost recruit us,” Carless said. “They’ll reach out to Cal Poly and say ‘I have a couple of guys that are on your level.’”
Delisle falls into this category, as he found out about Cal Poly through a former player who was a graduate assistant coach that lived near him in France. Even though he had this connection, it was still his journey to take alone and he said the independence he gained has brought a lot to the table for the team.
“I know from my perspective, I was 13 when I left my parents. So I was used to doing my homework alone, doing my laundry, cooking. So I think that that brings some maturity to the team,” Delisle said.
Cal Poly has had great success in the past few years, but it cannot all be attributed to one part of the world. Coach Carless explained the best teams are the ones that can learn from each other and grow together.
“In order to be competitive at the highest levels of college tennis, you’ll see almost every team have a blend of international and domestic talent,” Carless said. “For me, I feel it’s really important to recruit a blend. I would never want an entire team of international guys; I would never want a team of all Americans.”
This blend of talent at Cal Poly was ranked as the No. 63 team in the nation this season and, with most of the team returning next year, the Mustangs will look to carry their success into 2023.