The University of Rochester men’s tennis team earned its first win over Stevens Institute of Technology in program history on Sunday in a fashion that exemplified its 10-2 start to the 2018-19 season. Every player in the lineup earned at least one point in the Yellowjackets’ 6-3 win over the Ducks, their third win this year over a team they lost to last season.
“We have worked really hard from the end of last year into this season,” said senior co-captain Masaru Fujimaki. “We took almost no days off in the off-season and it has been critical for team bonding. When you are on the court, you want to play for people you love. We play 100 percent until that last point. Being a close team is why we have been more successful this season.”
Fujimaki, who was born in Japan and moved to China when he was six years old, has been the leader of a team that includes seven student-athletes born outside the U.S. Two each were born in China and India, and others were born in Russia and Taiwan (in addition to Fujimaki being born in Japan). The native U.S. student-athletes on the team hail from one coast to another (New Jersey to California) and only one, sophomore Connor Wagner, is from Rochester.
“With so many freshmen (six of 13 players are first-year students), we wanted returners to motivate them. This is our best team in my time at the UR and we talked about how we could work hard and be successful,” stated junior co-captain Tanmay Thakkar. “We had team dinners and meetings to make them comfortable and motivated each other to work hard.”
“We have an incredible bond as a team and I think it may be the biggest reason for our success,” remarked the team’s only other senior Matt Resnikoff. “This year it just feels like everybody loves everybody and it’s an incredibly fun atmosphere to be a part of.”
“Although members come from different countries, we have an extraordinary sense of unity. As a member of this team, I respect and trust my teammates,” commented Charlie Fang, who came back from a 4-1 third-set deficit to clinch the win over the Ducks. “Of course, we encourage each other during the match, just like the words when we cheer before every match, ‘Who’s got my back? I got your back!’ In my opinion, trust, respect, and unity are the soul of the whole team.”
INTERNATIONAL DESTINATION: ROCHESTER
“Masaru has been helpful in attracting top players from different parts of the world,” said Rochester head men’s and women’s coach Matt Nielsen. “We tend to attract a lot of international students at the school. We have a great combination of the university attracting international students, and the players who have come loving the school and the chance to compete.”
Indeed, Rochester is among the top schools in the nation for international students. The university’s class of 2022 will feature international students from 96 countries, representing 30.7 percent of the incoming first-year class.
The international players on the team made it clear that they wanted the ability to continue playing tennis with their academic pursuits a top priority. “The U.S. is the only country where you can play a sport competitively without compromising on your academics. Nothing similar to the NCAA platform exists anywhere else,” said junior Sahaj Somani, who earned the clinching point in the Yellowjackets’ win over NYU in the seventh-place match at last year’s UAA Tennis Championships. “Given that I wanted to go to a very good academic institution where I could play on the team rather than be a bench player, Rochester was the best choice for me. It all boiled down to the academic ranking in economics and the tennis team.”
Fujimaki grew up playing tennis in Shanghai, China. “When I was a junior player, I wanted to try to play professional tennis. My parents did not agree,” he laughed. “My coach had gone pro and he told me it’s too hard to be successful on the pro tour. We all discussed the best way for me to play tennis and get a good education and decided to look at U.S. colleges. The Shanghai team was a government-supported one and every player other than me chose tennis over academics. None of them went to college.”
For Russian-born Mark Zolotukhin, the thought of attending school in the U.S. never entered his mind during his early tennis days. “I played tennis in Russia at a young age and then started going around Europe for tournaments and training locations. At that time I traveled to Spain, Croatia, Czech Republic, and some other places in search for competition and a long-term training site. Then my parents decided to send me to IMG (a multi-sport training and educational academy in Bradenton, Florida). Ever since I got to Rochester, I have not stopped thinking what a good fit this school is for me.”
Junior Yifan Shen, who was born in Taiwan before moving to China at the age of three, always intended to study elsewhere, but not necessarily America. “I had choices on whether I wanted to go to a school in Australia, Europe, Hong Kong, or the U.S.,” he remarked. “I chose the U.S in the end because it was the only place that valued athletics as much as I did.”
Fang and Peter Huang each come from Beijing, China. “I actually intended to go to a traditional U.S. high school, but after attending a summer camp at Weil Tennis Academy & Weil College Preparatory School in (Ojai) California, I chose to go there,” Huang stated. “I always wanted to go to college in the U.S.”
Fang made his decision not to pursue a professional tennis career at age 18 to study in the U.S. “In my preparation for professional tennis, I experienced multiple wonderful training opportunities in United States, Spain, and France among other places,” Fang commented. “I was attracted by the culture of the University of Rochester, the academic atmosphere, the sports spirit, and most importantly, how nice and professional Coach Nielsen is.”
Thakkar began preparing for college in America by enrolling in an International Baccalaureate® (IB) program in high school. “I applied to colleges based on academic rankings and athletics,” he recalled. “I spoke to coaches and watched videos on YouTube. It was always important for me to stay focused academically. I could have gone to a Division I school, but most were not strong enough academically and I wouldn’t be able to play tennis.”
Like Huang, freshman Adrian Zhang attended Weil Academy. He was born in the U.S., but moved to China at a young age, and did not start playing tennis there until he was 14 years old. Because of tennis, he decided to return to the United States to attend Weil as a sophomore in high school. “I had Rochester as one of my target schools since I would be able to be challenged academically, while still being able to compete and practice on a high-level team. I was able to meet with some members of the tennis team of each university I visited, and the guys here were definitely the most enthusiastic about tennis and the most welcoming. That made me sure that I wanted to attend Rochester.”
U.S. STUDENTS CHOOSING ROCHESTER
Freshman Pasquale Procaccino hails from Alexandria, Virginia, a first-generation immigrant of Italian parents. “The stellar academics initially attracted me to the school and after learning more about the tennis program, I knew I wanted to go here,” he said. “I was further convinced when I visited the beautiful campus, and got to hit around and talk with the guys on the team.”
Resnikoff and freshman Uriah Miller both grew up in New Jersey. “When I was looking at schools, I wanted one that had strong academics and a smallish vibe to it, and I wanted to be able to play tennis,” Resnikoff recollected. “I communicated with Coach Nielsen and Rochester became the school for me.” Although he struggled in his freshman tryout and failed to make the team then, he continued to play and eventually played his way onto the squad.
“The main reason I chose Rochester was that I believe that it is a good university for me to prioritize academics, while still improving my tennis,” commented Miller, who is a pre-med student. “Coach Nielsen made it clear that school would always be a priority over any practice, and that has been true, particularly when I have exams. I know this is a great research university, whether with a professor or at the medical center across the street.”
For Cleveland Heights, Ohio native Ben Gwinnell, the university allows him to pursue various passions. “I chose U of R because I wanted a school where I could challenge myself academically, while also having the flexibility to explore other interests of mine. I thought that the school had a great balance of academic rigor and opportunities to explore the arts, such as music,” he expressed. “I have played bass, drums, and guitar for pretty much my whole life, and I used to play a lot of rock music live before high school. I'm taking a class called rock repertory ensemble and we put together live shows of rock music twice a semester. It is so refreshing to finally have that part of my life back (that I lost during high school), and it was the flexibility in the university’s curriculum that allowed me to do so.”
Wagner chose to stay in his hometown for a variety of reasons. “Being from the Rochester City School District (RCSD), I was given a wonderful financial opportunity that I could not afford to pass up. I had also been to the campus on many occasions for research and summer camps when I was younger,” he recalled. “I loved how beautiful the campus was and how welcome I felt by librarians, camp instructors (including Coach Nielsen when I attended his summer tennis camp, and other Rochester faculty.”
COMPETING ON A DIVERSE TEAM
“It is interesting to see how close they have all become. They all speak so many languages,” Nielsen remarked. “You can’t really manufacture that in a couple weeks or months. It takes time. I had to change the way I have interacted with players. I don’t have to be that constant watchdog.”
“As a team from different cultures, we have a lot of topics to talk about and a lot to learn about other cultures,” Fujimaki described. “We can learn so much from each other. We laugh and learn every time we talk. I want to win my matches so badly to make it better for others. We do things like going to movies together, things that didn’t happen before. It is so natural because we spend so much time together.”
“It is a big responsibility being a captain on a team with players from different countries,” Thakkar added. “The team was diverse my freshman year, but has been even more so since with all the international students. One of the advantages is that if any of us know someone in another country that is interested in tennis, we have someone they can talk to. Having two captains reduces the workload that would be on one person, but is also helpful for other reasons. For example, Masaru is comfortable talking to people from China, while someone else may be more comfortable talking to me.”
“It’s fun to learn about everyone’s history because our backgrounds are all very different,” Resnikoff noted. “Being a part of the team is awesome and I think the international students definitely add some spice to it,” Somani explained further. “Being from different places gives us a bigger palette of inside jokes and experiences to share. We also have an advantage when it comes to communicating in doubles (using different languages). As a non-native English speaker, it is difficult to put into words how fun it is being a part of this crazy, diverse team.”
Being with other international students is something Zolotukhin was already accustomed to when he got to Rochester. “Partially because of IMG, I am used to being around people from all over the world, and for that reason being part of an international team is a gift,” he reasoned. “I love being on this team and I think the best part is that we are so much more than just a team because of the international aspect of it. Rather than connecting to each other based on our background, it was easier to connect as a tennis team.”
Procaccino has already seen numerous benefits from being a member of this team. “Being on such a diverse team, I've learned to be more accepting of other cultures and have learned more about these different cultures. It has expanded my knowledge,” he stated. “My favorite part of being part of the tennis team is the opportunity to connect, and be friends, with people who I wouldn't have met or typically engaged with otherwise.”
The blending of multiple nationalities elicits some good-natured arguments. “I love being part of this team. We get to learn so much about one another’s cultures and it opens our eyes to different corners of the world. We always have sarcastic fights about how one country is better than another, and that’s something you won’t see in other teams,” Shen commentated. “My favorite part about the team is how different we are from each other, yet we still hang out so much outside of the courts. We are constantly motivating each other to do better, and it’s just a great team with great chemistry.”
Zhang sees the benefits of the team’s unique chemistry on and off the court. “Being on a team with people from all over the world makes every day more interesting as we learn about everyone else's different backgrounds,” he reflected. “The team is also much more open-minded as they understand everyone grew up differently. This is good, especially on the court, since we are good at listening to each other's advice on how to improve every day.”
Gwinnell concurs with that assessment. “I absolutely love the range of different people on our team, and learning about all of their experiences growing up. It feels like I'm part of a specialized unit, with people hand-picked from around the world, each equipped with their own unique abilities,” he mentioned. “My favorite part of being on such a diverse team is being able to learn and improve so many different parts of my game from the various expertise of my teammates.”
“It is really cool being on a team with people from so many places, but what was so surprising is the chemistry that this team has. I thought that because we have such a diverse team, that maybe there would be cliques in the team or something but that has not been the case at all,” Wagner reported. “Everyone is friendly toward each other and we are all friends outside of practice and matches.”
One issue the international students cite is the Rochester weather. “It was a good thing I did not look up the weather of Rochester (when I was looking into schools),” Somani said. Native Rochesterian Wagner laughs about it. “It's kind of funny how everyone complains about the winters and they have no idea how bad they can really get!” he noted.
ONE GOAL: IMPROVING
“This team has bonded over having the same goal to get back in national rankings (which they have) and improve in the UAA,” Nielsen recognized. “They are willing to put the work in and help each other get better, which was missing years ago. There were times when we had a bunch of individuals, but this is a true team.”
Nielsen believes that each student-athlete on the team plays an important role in the team concept and that it starts with the leadership of his captains Fujimaki and Thakkar. “Masaru was one of our best recruits in a while. He has always been a very good competitor, but we started having more success when he grew into that leadership role,” he commented. “He was the biggest part of changing the mentality and work ethic from top to bottom. It really helped to have a leader who is one of the top players. He can talk the talk and walk the walk with his work ethic and competitiveness in big matches.”
“Tanmay is very serious and all business. He cares very deeply about doing well and pushing himself,” Nielsen continued. “His fitness has improved more than anybody. He made a real commitment to get in great shape. That example has been huge for the rest of the team. It also helps to have another person to trust and to get a different perspective.”
One of the team’s biggest wins this season was the first match of the spring, a 5-4 victory over Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), a team the Yellowjackets lost to 8-1 a season ago. Somani earned the clinching point with a 6-3 win in the third set at No. 4 singles. “We worked and prepared so hard for that match and that was a big win,” Fujimaki stated. “We saw that all that hard work paid off.”
The Yellowjackets followed that with a heart-pumping 5-4 victory over Vassar College the next day. This time it was Thakkar with the clincher as he won the final three games to take a 6-7 (5-7), 7-5, 6-4 win at No. 3 singles. “We were motivated to work hard and then we saw the results so we stayed motivated to keep winning,” he remarked.
The team knows it faces a steep challenge playing in the UAA with six teams ranked in the top-15 in the country. Despite several competitive matches and two super-breakers in singles, Rochester was shut out by Case Western Reserve University on Saturday.
“Before I came to the USA, I didn’t know what the UAA was about or what teams we were in a conference with. The guys told me about the championship in Florida and checked all the team’s rankings,” Fujimaki remembered. “Five schools were in the top-10 in one year. I said, ‘What is this conference? This is ridiculous.’ However, it is great to play the best players in the nation, especially playing number one. It has motivated me to be successful playing guys who are ahead of me, to work hard to beat them. It’s a positive thing as a team to play those guys and see we need to work hard to improve.”
“All the teams in the UAA are so good. I feel like it is a good thing, maybe not best for results, but playing better teams improves you significantly regardless of the result,” Thakkar elucidated. “In a weaker conference, it looks good on paper to finish high in the standings, but individually, we would not improve our games as much. Overall, it is a great experience to play those great teams and when you start beating one or two, you take it to the next level with your work.”
“At the end of the day we’re all just here to play tennis, have fun together, and hopefully win some big matches. Because of those common factors we’ve grown very close as a team,” Resnikoff concluded.