European influence is a new trend on tennis courts

BY BEN ROSS | MAY 06, 2011 7:20 AM

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Looking at the roster of any Hawkeye sport, nothing usually seems unusual. Most athletes come from Midwest towns, Chicago suburbs, and occasionally either coast.

However, after looking at the Iowa men’s tennis roster, things may seem a little unusual.

With players coming from Belgium, Germany, and Russia, it makes the average fan wonder how these players end up in Iowa City.

The trend is not exclusive to Iowa, however; these days it is more unusual to have no international players. For example, the No. 1 ranked tennis program in the country, Virginia, has six international players on its 13-man roster.

Iowa has four international players on its roster, senior Nikita Zotov of Moscow, juniors Marc Bruche and Tom Mroziewicz, from Hölsbrunn, Germany, and Toronto, and freshman Jonas Dierckx hailing from Lommel, Belgium.

It’s easy to wonder how the players and coaches come into contact with each other, with the long distance to travel and language barriers as some obvious hurdles. But head coach Steve Houghton said seeing players reach out to programs is just as common as coaches seeking talented athletes, a process that has been simplified because of the Internet.

“The Internet opens opportunities to see players,” he said. “We get on international sites all the time. We can see the highest ranked players from a country, and after that, it is relatively easy to connect to players. We can also see video, which doesn’t tell us everything, so [assistant coach] Steve Nash flies overseas to meet with them and watch them play.”

There are many reasons that a foreign player would choose to leave his home country in favor of the States, and more often than not, it’s in the player’s best interest to leave home. The idea of sports scholarships is not practiced in Europe, so the United States is the best place to go to earn an education while playing the sport they love. Also, if players have any aspirations of turning professional, the United States is the place where they will gain the most exposure, especially if they play for a high-profile Division-I program.

Another trend in European tennis is the development of players in tennis academies, where they hone their skills while still taking highschool classes. These academies set up ties with universities and recruiting agencies, which often do all the work for connecting a school with a player. This is how Dierckx got connected to Houghton and Iowa.

“The first people who contacted me were the recruiting agency,” he said. “They sent my videos to the U.S., which is how Iowa got ahold of them. Houghton then contacted me and after a while, offered me a scholarship.”

Not all recruits come in this way, however; often the player must reach out to the university to gain recognition. This was the case with Bruche, who transferred to Iowa after playing a year at Baylor. After serving a mandatory hitch in the German Army, he followed a friend from Germany to Baylor, where he competed in tennis but was unhappy. The Baylor coach gave Bruche the option to transfer, and he took it as an opportunity to seek out Iowa.

Nash accidentally saw Bruche play in a tournament in Tulsa, Okla., which eventually led him to Iowa.

“He didn’t know I wanted to transfer, but I e-mailed the coaches at Iowa, and now I’m here,” Bruche said.

Since Houghton chooses not to fly, Nash is in charge of all the international recruiting. He tries to set up ties with academies, a process that he thinks is enjoyable for the athletes and an important step to master in becoming the best program in the country.

“The kids are very proactive during the whole process,” Nash said. “We’re trying to set up strong contact with the best academies in the world, with the best kids. We want to be the best program out there, and this helps to gain an advantage over other schools.”

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