They have been recruited from around the globe from countries such as the Czech Republic, Canada, Australia, Jamaica, Brazil, Russia, Ivory Coast and India.
These international students have the talent that Simon Thibodeau, head coach of the womenâ€™s tennis team, said can only benefit the programs.
The tennis teams have the highest number of foreign athletes of all Fresno State sports.
Many of the teams that Fresno State plays consist nearly entirely of foreign athletes, making this a trend nationally as well. Both the menâ€™s tennis head coach Jay Udwadia and Thibodeau recruit internationally, but also aim to attract as many American students, and Californians in particular, as possible.
â€œBecause the reputation of Fresno State is getting much better, we have been able to attract more Americans than before,” Thibodeau, now in his fourth year as the womenâ€™s head coach, said.
â€œI want to recruit the best Americans and the best talent from around the world to improve our team. I look for people who have good team spirit, that want to improve their game rather than just sit on a scholarship.”
Thibodeau is a native of Quebec, Canada, and was a national coach with the Canadian Tennis Federation, which took him around the world. His coaching experience has given him many contacts internationally. Since coming to Fresno State, Thibodeau has worked with recruiting agencies in Russia, South America and France to find the best players for the team.
Many teenage tennis players around the world are anxious for the opportunity to receive a tennis scholarship from an American university, and most universities are eager to accommodate them, Thibodeau said. The experience of intercollegiate tennis is an experience that is not often available outside of the United States.
â€œYou either play sports or you go to college in other countries,” Thibodeau said. â€œEarly on, you must make a decision to both quit school and devote yourself to a sport, or you quit the sport altogether to go to school. Itâ€™s very tough to do both.”
Still, it is equally tough to move to a new country, thousands of miles away from everyone you know, and to also be faced with a different language. For many foreign students, tennis is one of the few things that remains familiar.
There was also comfort in the camaraderie that develops among the players.
â€œIt was important to me to realize that I was not the only one that has to deal with this situation, like the language and the homesickness,” Vanessa Heroux, a Montreal, Canada native who is on the womenâ€™s tennis team, said. The fact that there are so many others on the team, including her coach and fellow French Canadian Thibodeau, in her situation helped a lot in her transition.
Herouxâ€™s teammate Bruna Baes, who is from Brazil, agreed that the changes initially can be tough. â€œIt is really hard to adjust,” she said. â€œYou have different coaches, you are living alone, the food is different, youâ€™re homesick, and then thereâ€™s the language barrier.”
Other members of the team had similar experiences.
â€œEverything is different, the language and not knowing anyone here,” Renata Kucerkova, a 20-year-old from the Czech Republic said.
Another tennis player from the Czech Republic is Jakub Cech, a senior on the menâ€™s team. Before coming to Fresno, he had already been to approximately 15 countries because of his tennis background, but even he got homesick when he first moved to California.
He has sometimes been a mentor to the other Czech players, such as Kucerkova and two others on the menâ€™s team, when they started their first semesters, he said.
A lot of things are different about America, things that perhaps many wouldnâ€™t think about, Cech said. â€œEverything is big here,” he said. â€œThe meals are big, everything is extra-large. People are also more talkative. Talking to strangers doesnâ€™t happen as much in Europe.”
Even with the adjustments, the athletes said they were excited to play for Fresno State while earning their degrees.
Heroux agreed that it was an opportunity that couldnâ€™t be ignored. â€œThe tennis team was really good,” she said. â€œPlus, it was in California, and they have the physical therapy program that I wanted. I like it here a lot.”
While all of the athletes said the tradition of Fresno State tennis was a significant factor in choosing to come here, the weather played a role too. â€œI was always looking for good tennis programs,” Cech said. â€œBut I also wanted to go somewhere where I could play tennis outdoors all year.”
Others, like Kucerkova, said that the heat took some getting used to. â€œBut I wanted to study abroad, I wanted to come to California,” Kucerkova said. â€œThis was a good opportunity.”
Heroux also said the international athletes contribute a lot to the reputation of the Fresno State tennis team. â€œIt is good that there are foreigners on the team,” she said. â€œAround the world there are different styles of tennis, so having those styles on our team creates depth.”
Thibodeau said this diversity is important. â€œI want to recruit the best Americans and the best talent from around the world to improve our team,” Thibodeau said.
It is important to Thibodeau that his athletes excel off the tennis court as well.
â€œThe tennis teams have an average grade point average of 3.61, which is the strongest out of all athletic teams on campus,” he said.
â€œThe students need to succeed in school and at tennis. That takes discipline. There is not a lot of time for socializing, itâ€™s not non-existent, but itâ€™s not like being a regular student. They need to sacrifice.”