Photo: Taylor Soule
“The tricky thing about recruiting in college tennis is that if I find a good player in Bosnia or somewhere, I can’t exactly go hop on a plane to go take a look at him,” said head coach Evan Austin.
If Austin had hopped on a plane last year to visit each of Drake’s three freshmen just once, his round trip would have racked up over 18,000 miles. Talk about frequent flyer miles.
Whether it’s on the lawns of Wimbledon or the blue courts of the Roger Knapp Tennis Center, tennis has become an international sport. When Austin is looking for talent to fill out his roster each year, he doesn’t abide by the usual Drake practice of looking primarily in the Midwest. And although Austin’s recruiting net spreads a few thousand miles beyond the usual Drake reach, one common sentiment holds true.
“For all us coaches at the smaller schools, we are trying to find the kids that not everyone knows about,” Austin said.
And that is no easy task either because it isn’t just the smaller schools looking for international recruits. Even the nation’s top team and defending NCAA champion, the University of Southern California, has six international student-athletes on their 11-man roster.
While the top 10 teams in the nation may have the budget to fly out and meet with their student-athletes, Austin has to rely on something a bit more rudimentary: trust.
At the most basic level, Austin is constantly looking at the rankings from the International Tennis Federation’s junior circuit of tournaments, searching for the diamonds in the rough. He tries to find players who may not have the highest international ranking, but show promise.
“I’m looking for kids like Alen [Salibasic], who a lot of the bigger coaches didn’t know about because he didn’t have a high ranking,” Austin said, “but he showed promise because he played some smaller level pro tournaments and had results there.”
But Austin doesn’t make these decisions based solely on results. Having played collegiately at the University of Kentucky, he has a number of contacts abroad, from former players to friends and coaches. Once Austin finds a recruit he likes, it isn’t easy to get in contact with them.
“A lot of these guys are in different time zones, out traveling and playing in tournaments with no email access, so it’s a long process,” Austin said. “From the first time you first start talking with them through email and the time they arrive on campus, it can take a couple years.”
The process isn’t just for one or two players either.
“For every 30 or 40 kids that you find that are pretty good, you might get one of them,” Austin said.
Fortunately for college tennis coaches everywhere, the players themselves are a huge resource once they arrive on campus. Having played in hundreds of junior tournaments, many of the student-athletes have friends and competitors from around the world who might also be looking to play collegiate tennis.
For example, while Drake tennis legend Maor Zirkin was a volunteer assistant coach, he played an integral role in recruiting senior Jonathan Hadash.
What’s even more impressive is that Drake’s lineup of players from the United Kingdom seems to keep feeding new talent into the program. Junior James McKie was a key factor in bringing sophomore Robin Goodman to Drake. In return, Goodman was a key factor in bringing freshman Ben Mullis to Drake as well as a recruit for next year, Ben Lott. But this isn’t just simple nepotism. Each player has made an impact on the No. 39 (this will probably change by next week) Bulldogs.
Drake’s recent success isn’t just benefitting them on the international stage, but a number of students in the United States are starting to take notice of the Bulldogs’ movement in the rankings, as well.
“I’ve been in contact with a few guys from Florida, Texas and California looking to get a shot at college tennis,” Austin said. “We’ve done a good job of getting each guy on the team better and giving them a great experience. I think guys are seeing our moves in the rankings and the good things going on here.”
Unlike basketball or football, tennis has the ability to give out 4.5 scholarships. With six players in the starting lineup, Austin and a number of college coaches opt to split the scholarship money up amongst the roster. Therefore, he is constantly looking for true student-athletes: ones who can earn scholarships in the classroom as well as on the court.
“It’s to Drake’s benefit and the team’s benefit to find the smartest kids possible,” Austin said. “If you bring someone that isn’t smart enough, they’re not going to make it here at Drake.”