North Texas Daily

North Texas tennis team recruits internationally to compete nationally

North Texas tennis team recruits internationally to compete nationally

North Texas tennis team recruits internationally to compete nationally
October 13
17:17 2018

Three percent of NCAA student-athletes are born and recruited from a country other than the U.S., according to the NCAA. Thus, a team entirely comprised of foreign athletes is statistically unlikely.

But that’s not the case for the North Texas tennis team.

North Texas tennis is composed of eight players, all of whom are from the continents of Europe or Asia, and a head coach who is originally from the small Asian nation of Nepal.

Tennis is considered one of the most popular international sports for women. Rather than recruiting solely in the U.S., head coach Sujay Lama said he doesn’t want to miss out on the unbelievable tennis talents showcased throughout the  world.

“Tennis is a very global sport,” Lama said. “There is incredible talent all over the world and I think it is a matter of us doing our homework and finding them.”

Lama said that although a lot of people believe he and his staff only recruit international players, his recruiting process is about finding the best talent in the world.

“We actually recruit very good Americans all the time, but the American athletes usually want to go to powerhouse schools such as Stanford or Duke,” Lama said. “We are always looking for the best student-athlete we can find, and we will look wherever we can for great tennis players, great academic students and people with great character.”

The team is highlighted by Maria Kononova and Tamuna Kutubidze. These two seniors have spent the last three years at UNT and are now starting to emerge as some of the top players in the country.

“[Maria and Tumuna] are amazing players,” Lama said. “They could go anywhere in the country, but they stay here because they love this place and take great pride in being a part of the Mean Green.”

Kononova, who is originally from Ufa, Russia, said that her first choice was not UNT. Instead, she was planning on committing to Conference USA opponent Louisiana Tech.

“Coach Lama didn’t really get in touch with me for a while and one of the offers I got was from Louisiana Tech,” Kononova sad. “I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go yet, but I knew I wanted to go somewhere in the U.S.”

She also said that Kamilla Galieva, a member of the North Texas team from 2012-2016, was from Ufa, Russia, too. This is how Kononova first heard about the UNT tennis program, and she always thought it would be nice to know someone at whatever school she would attend.

“It was good that I had Kamilla with me my freshman year,” Kononova said. “Anytime I felt bad, I could use my own language to express all my emotions.”

Two days before Kononova was set on committing to Louisiana Tech, Coach Lama reached out and offered her a full-ride athletic scholarship.

“I’m happy it all worked out,” Kononova said.

Kutubidze’s route to North Texas was much different than her teammate’s. Kutubidze joined the North Texas tennis team from Georgia. She said college tennis was not originally in her sights because she was seriously considering playing professional tennis at a young age.

However, Kutubidze changed her mind about collegiate tennis when Lama and associate head coach Jeff Hammond started to contact her. Once she learned about the culture and program of North Texas tennis, Kutubidze decided to make the 6,721-mile trip to Denton.

“I had several different offers from different schools,” Kutubidze said. “At the time, I was still thinking about playing pro tennis. I liked Jeff Hammond and then I spoke with Coach Lama on Skype before he came to visit me in Georgia. When it came down to [deciding], I made the decision to come to UNT because of the coaches.”

Kutubidze mentioned that having all eight teammates and a coach from different countries really informed her about all the traditions that take place around the world.

“People get [an] education through reading books and everything,” Kutubidze said. “Just having people from nine different countries has taught me so many things about different cultures. It is so amazing.”

Lama was an international recruit himself at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, and said he is able to help them adapt to life in the U.S. because not too long ago he was in the same situation as his team.

“I was in their shoes 30 years ago,” Lama said. “I came to the U.S. and in my time, there were no emails or Skypes. I didn’t go home until two and a half years later -— it is very difficult. I think it helps because I understand what they are going through.”

Coach Lama said the major factor he and his staff focus on is making sure his athletes feel as if they are involved in a family. He wants them to know they are going to be taken care of at UNT.

“We are a team, and we like to get them involved and create a family atmosphere to make sure we are all here for each other,” Lama said. “The bottom line is that they know we really love and care for them as human beings first and foremost.”

Featured Image: Junior Haruka Sasaki swings at the ball during a practice singles match. Sasaki hails from Fujisawa, Japan and was named a 2018 ITA All-Academic Scholar-Athlete. Rachel Walters

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Bronte Hermesmeyer

Bronte Hermesmeyer

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