Collegiate Tennis Recruits Span The GlobeFeb. 12, 2003
Baylor basketball might sport players from Kenya and the West Indies, and track features a runner from Hungary, but no University teams burst with an international flavor like men's and women's tennis.
Germany, Croatia, Argentina, Scotland, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, the United States -- the tennis teams could stage their own parade of nations when the players' home countries are announced. Nor is this a Baylor phenomenon. Collegiate tennis in the United States truly is an exercise in international relations, said Matt Knoll, Baylor's director of tennis.
"You don't see as much football, basketball or baseball in other countries, so elite athletes there are playing tennis," Knoll said. "There are fewer than a handful of U.S. universities that exclusively have players who are from the States."
When Knoll arrived in 1997 as coach of the men's team, Baylor tennis was a perennial cellar dweller, not just in the former Southwest Conference but throughout collegiate tennis. Knoll hit the international recruiting trail as a way to boost Baylor tennis fortunes.
"When I first came here, we were forced to recruit the whole universe. We were on every kid who was walking in every country on the planet," said Knoll, known as a relentless recruiter.
That diligence paid off. In Knoll's six complete seasons at Baylor, his men's teams have participated in NCAA postseason play five times and have won the Big 12 regular season twice and the Big 12 tournament once. Baylor women's tennis also has seen its share of success, playing in the NCAA tournament from 1996 to 2001.
And with success, Knoll can curtail some of his globetrotting and concentrate on visits to Germany, the countries of the former Yugoslavia and parts of Eastern Europe. "Now that we have our teams up to a certain competitive level, we have been able to focus on a smaller area," he said.
Knoll stresses that recruiting internationally is not an easy task. Players must be sold on pursuing their education in the United States, and their academic records must pass a rigorous inspection by the NCAA clearinghouse. Additionally, the NCAA requires athletes to pass an English competency test and the SAT test in English. That requirement eliminates some top-quality players from receiving a scholarship.
"Spain has great players, but you don't often see them on college teams for two reasons. One, English is not commonly taught in the schools, and two, the type of players who could help us are leaving school at age 14. You also see that problem in Italy and the former Soviet Union," Knoll said.
When an international player does arrive on campus, he or she encounters many adjustments -- everything from food to language to the educational system. They also must deal with homesickness.
Senior Zoltan Papp left his native Budapest for the Baylor campus and found the adjustment difficult. "I couldn't stand cafeteria food because my mother used to cook every day," he said. "I ran into more boundaries on the field of speaking and understanding English."
But Papp, like most of Baylor's international players, plans to remain in the States after graduation. He is majoring in entrepreneurship and would like to open a bakery.
"I can't think of anyone who went home to stay," Knoll said. "The economy in the United States is so much stronger than in other parts of the world. The starting salary that these kids can command with a Baylor degree is far superior to what they will get back home. Plus, the lifestyle here is good. We really live in the best country in the world."
Carlson, BA '86, is senior staff writer in media relations in the Baylor Office of Public Relations.