Monday, November 11

UCLA tennis phenoms focus on career paths


European-born players turn their athletic talents into opportunities

  MIKE CHIEN (l to r) Lassi Ketola
(Finland), Tobias Clemens (Germany),

Jean-Julien Rojer (Netherlands-Antilles),
Marcin Matkowski (Poland), Erfan
Djahangiri
(Switzerland), Rodrigo Grilli
(Brazil).

By Greg Schain

Daily Bruin Reporter


In the spring of 2000, professional tennis player Tobias Clemens
decided playing professional tennis wasn’t the right career
move for him. He was ranked in the top 500, but the German-born
tennis prodigy wasn’t improving to the status of a truly
elite player on the pro tour.

“Playing professionally didn’t work out that
great,” Clemens said. “Tennis as a career is very
risky.”

So he decided to take advantage of a little known opportunity
among European athletes: go to college in the United States.

“I was 21, and I knew it was my last chance to go to
college,” he said.

Clemens sent in his results from lower pro circuits that he
played on to coaches of the nation’s top programs, including
Duke, Pepperdine and UCLA.

“His results were really good,” head coach Billy
Martin said. “He had beaten some really good
players.”

So UCLA, as well as the other programs he applied to, offered
Clemens a spot on their roster.

But Clemens only took one offer seriously.

“UCLA was the only school I had really heard of,”
Clemens said. “And I knew I wanted to go there because of its
reputation. Everyone knows UCLA in Europe.”

Clemens, now a sophomore, is one of many members of the UCLA
tennis squad to use the sport as an opportunity to come to the
United States to get an education.

In fact, a glance at the Bruin roster reminds one of a United
Nations convention. Besides having a player from Germany, the team
also sports athletes from Switzerland, Finland, Poland, the
Netherlands-Antilles, Brazil and an assistant coach from South
Africa.

“I’m having to learn so many darn languages,”
Martin said. “Polish, German, Finnish, Portuguese, French. Of
course I don’t, but I pick up a few words here and
there.”

Despite the variety of languages and backgrounds among the
players, they all have one thing in common: an appreciation of the
opportunity to come to the United States to play tennis and get an
education.

“Kids in Europe are amazed at how great our system
is,” Martin said. “Nowhere in the world can you combine
athletics and academics like in the USA. Internationally, you have
to pick one or the other at a very early age.”

But going to college isn’t all a bed of roses for these
athletes. By choosing the education route, they are foregoing some
of their prime tennis years ““ years that could be used to go
pro and earn precious money.

“Even 18 by some philosophies is too late to go
pro,” Martin said.

Clemens sees validity in that philosophy.

“For every other sport, going to college helps go
pro,” Clemens said. “But for tennis, I’m not so
sure if that is the case.”

And even if a student does decide to go pro after college, he
will only have a few years before age becomes a factor. Since
tennis is a sport where the prize money isn’t enough for most
people to live off of for life, they will need their education to
get other jobs after retirement.

“Sooner or later you have to retire from tennis, and then
what?” said junior Jean-Julien Rojer, a native of the
Netherlands-Antilles. “Your education is going to have to
come into play and you’re going to need it.”

According to Martin, most of Rojer’s teammates feel the
same way.

“Most young kids don’t realize the value of
education, but most of the kids that come here to play think
it’s important,” he said. “Having a degree gives
inner peace. You know if you don’t make it, you have
something to fall back on.”

A look at where some of Martin’s graduates are now shows
that Bruin tennis players take their education seriously.
Martin’s player’s have gone on to a variety of
professional careers, including doctors, dentists, money managers,
and sports agents.

“It’s fun to see what the kids end up doing after
they graduate,” Martin said.

One thing’s for sure: the players know that getting their
degrees ensures them of at least having the option to pursue other
careers if tennis doesn’t work out.

“We are all really grateful for the opportunity,”
Rojer said. “We all love UCLA.”

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterEmail this to someoneShare on Google+Share on Reddit

Comments are supposed to create a forum for thoughtful, respectful community discussion. Please be nice. View our full comments policy here.