Photo: Connor McCourtney
Seventeen years ago, senior Mauricio Ballivian picked up a tennis racquet for the first time at a summer camp in his hometown of Santa Cruz, Bolivia. This moment not only changed the future of the young Bolivian but also the legacy of men’s tennis on the campus of Drake.
Ballivan started playing tennis at the age of 5. As an upperclassman at his high school, he decided to put tennis on hold for a year to travel to New York for an exchange program. Ballivian wanted to get a better grasp on the English language because he hoped to attend an American university to play tennis. In hindsight, Ballivian called his trip to New York “risky” because his tennis game could have deteriorated immensely; he spent much of the year playing soccer.
“There was only one good tennis player at the high school, which was lucky,” he said. “I stayed with him, and he had a court at his house in the middle of the farm.”
After taking a few months off from the sport, Ballivian started playing high school tennis. That season he came across two-time New York state champion Matt Kandath, who is now a sophomore for No. 8 Stanford. Kandath was the top player in the entire region and was undefeated that year — until he met Ballivian.
“That guy didn’t lose to anyone that year besides me,” Ballivian said. “He was the best player in the state and he won the whole thing that year.”
By beating Kandath, Ballivian qualified for the state tournament, which is held annually at Flushing Meadows in Queens, the site of the U.S. Open each year. Ballivian recalled playing on the courts was like living out a dream. Unfortunately for Ballivian, his dream was cut short as he came across Kandath once more in the quarterfinals, and this time the New York native was the victor.
During winter break, Ballivian traveled back to Bolivia, but was soon contacted by then-Drake head coach Chase Hodges. Hodges had heard of the young Bolivian through a mutual friend, and he wanted Ballivian to come back to the United States to play tennis as a Drake Bulldog.
“At the time, we knew that we needed to bring in a January player who could have the ability to play very high in the lineup,” Hodges said. “‘Mau’ was the perfect fit for our team at the perfect time.”
The risk factor in recruiting Ballivian was higher though, as he didn’t have the same tournament results as Hodges’ most talented recruit, Maor Zirkin.
“Chase took a big risk with me,” Ballivian said. “Maor and Cesar (Bracho) were much safer bets than I was.”
Despite the risk, Ballivian started his Drake career with a bang, earning the Missouri Valley Conference Newcomer of the Year award as the Bulldogs advanced to the NCAA tournament. In his sophomore year, he moved up in the lineup and began playing even better tennis. In his junior year, he garnered co-ownership of the MVC Player of the Year accolade.
Entering into his senior season, Ballivian wanted his name in the banners of the Roger Knapp Tennis Center, next to the banner of friend, teammate and mentor Zirkin. He did that by winning the conference title at the top singles spot to start off the spring season. He wanted a national ranking in singles. He did that in February by coming in at No. 122 in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association rankings. Most of all, Ballivian wants to lead his team to the NCAA tournament by winning the MVC regular-season title and end-of-season tournament.
“Winning the title my freshman year was the best memory,” he said. “It was like we were in heaven.”
On Friday, Drake students and alumni will focus on the 102nd running of the Drake Relays, but Ballivian will have something else on his mind. The lone senior on a talented Bulldog squad will be out on the courts in St. Louis for the State Farm MVC Championships, fighting for each point in his final chance to reach the NCAA tournament.