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June 4, 2013

Tech tennis roster a lesson in world geography


By Rob Schabert, Sports Information Director

COOKEVILLE, Tenn. -- School’s out for summer, and for so many Tennessee Tech students, the end of the spring semester meant packing their clothes, stuffing it into their cars, and driving home. For some it’s a short drive, for others several hours.

For the members of the Golden Eagle tennis team, the two-time Ohio Valley Conference regular season champions, it’s not quite so easy. An international crew of student-athletes, the individual members of coach Kenny Doyle’s team spent anywhere from eight to 20 hours to get home.

The eight players on the 2013 roster hail from seven different countries, including two from South America, three from western Europe and three from eastern Europe.

While each of them says they enjoy their time in Cookeville, they looked forward to returning to their home countries and their families. Their summer plans are not much different than most Tech students – they all plan to relax (specifically, they plan to “not study”) and play tennis. Some will play soccer. All will take naps.

And eat. Oh, how they plan to eat.

“The very first thing I want to do when I get back is eat,” said Arturo Santa Ruiz, a native of Bogota Colombia, who accepted his degree in mechanical engineering in May with a 3.84 GPA. “I’ll see my family, I’ll say ‘hi’ to them, then I’ll say ‘lets go eat somewhere!’”

For Arturo, the journey home took him more than 2,300 miles, directly over Cuba, into Bogota.

“I grew up the first 15 years in Barranquilla, and now I live in Bogota,” he explains. “I’ll miss Cookeville and the university in general, the team, and our travel, but that was just one stage in life. Going to college and being on the team, it becomes part of your family. The university was my home for the last four years, and I got used to the people and the help they gave me.”

Barranquilla is near the coast, in the northern part of one of the northernmost countries in South America.

“It’s on the coast, and it’s always 80 or 90 degrees,” he explains. “There are a lot of hidden beaches around. It’s beautiful, the people are friendly, and there is really great seafood.”

South of Barranquilla is Bogota, the capital city, with a drastically different setting than on the coast.

“Colombia has a lot of mountains, and we are known for our coffee,” he says. “We have two distinct types of foods. On the coast, it’s seafood, and in the inner regions, beans, rice and meat dishes.”

Spending time in Tennessee, in the mid-South region of the United States, has added to the life lessons learned by Arturo and his teammates.

“Tennis players, when we’re travelling around, we travel internationally,” he said. “That’s how we get recruited. So, we get used to different cultures, different points of view, but it all comes together. It’s all a learning experience.”

For freshman Othon Lima, the journey home also takes him due South, to Macapa, in the Amapa region of Brazil, the largest country on the continent.

“We’re located in the very northern part of the country, where the equator passes through Brazil,” Lima explains. “It’s difficult to get there from here. First, I have to fly to the South of Brazil, then fly back to the north.”

A newcomer to the team this year, Lima is first going to meet up with his family in New York City and spend some time exploring. Once back home, he plans to take some online courses and begin an electrical engineering internship.

The rest of the team flew to Europe, heading to Spain, Russia, Serbia, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Altogether, they spent approximately 70 combined hours in the air to get home.

Alejandro Augusto and Alvaro Cintas had the “easiest” journeys, just 10 hours or so to Spain. Augusto, the OVC Freshman of the Year in 2012 and an all-OVC player this season, headed to Madrid, near the center of the country.  

“I will visit my family, spend some time with them, visit some friends, then I plan to play a lot of tournaments,” Augusto says. “I plan to relax, and I will play some soccer. In Madrid, everybody plays soccer.”

Pavle Perovic, another freshman, headed to Kragujevac, an industrial and historic city of 150,000 in the heart of Serbia. His homeland is tucked in the midst of Romania, Hungary, Croatia, Bulgaria, and Bosnia and Herzogovina.

“My home city is historic, it was once the capital of Serbia, and it’s very beautiful,” he says. “I liked Cookeville. It’s fresh and has clean air, which is a little different from my hometown.”

Should someone plan to visit his hometown, where would he recommend they visit?

“The statue of all the people who were killed by the Germans,” he says without hesitation. A major feature of the city is the Museum of Genocide.

The remaining three members of the team are practically neighbors, all coming to Tech from countries that were once a part of the Soviet Union.

Vasily Eremeev, a junior studying web design, is from Krasnoyarsk, the third-largest city in Siberia, in the center of Russia, and an important junction of the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Changing planes in Moscow, Eremeev took 18 hours to get home. Once there, his plans were simple.

“I plan to relax and chill with my friends and family,” he says.

Not quite so for Artem Tarasov and Syrym Abdukhalikov, who hope to fill their summer hours competing in tennis tournaments.

Tarasov headed to Tashkent in Uzbekistan, but not without taking several flights. From Nashville, he flew to New York, then Riga in Latvia, and finally into Tashkent. Once a significant trading point on the Silk Road, the city was devastated in 1966 by an earthquake that left 300,000 homeless.  It rose as an industrial city when the invasion into the U.S.S.R. by Nazi Germany in 1941 forced the government to relocate factories from western Russia to Tarasov’s city.

“Altogether, it’s about 15 or 16 hours,” Tarasov says nonchalantly. “I’m used to the flight. I sleep and watch movies. It’s not so bad.”

A sophomore majoring in business administration, Tarasov was ready for the change in culture upon his return.

“My hometown is not very much like Cookeville,” he explains. “It’s big. There are about four million people there.”

Coming to Tech has been a good experience, he insists.

“Before I came here, I knew Syrym (Abdukhalikov) and (assistant coach) Alex (Chen),” he says. “We knew each other for many years. Then we met the other guys and we’ve all become good friends. We studied together and we helped each other.”

For Syrym, the trip back to Kazakhstan probably completed his final time in Cookeville, home for nearly three years after his transfer from the University of Oklahoma. He earned his degree in May in Interdisciplinary Studies and in June was named as Tech’s Outstanding Male Athlete of the Year. A two-time all-OVC selection while playing at the No. 1 singles position, Abdukhalikov was named the OVC Player of the Year after going unbeaten in conference matches for two consecutive years.

His hometown of Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan with a population of 1.5 million, dates back to 1,000 BC and the Bronze Age. The city submitted an unsuccessful bid to host the 2014 Olympic Winter Games.

“We don’t get a lot of tourists,” he admits. “Most people don’t know where it is, but it remains one of the most popular cities in the region. We have good weather. The theatres and museums are really good there, and so are the galleries. The food is also amazing.”

It’s a sports-minded city, Syrym says.

“During the summer, everybody plays soccer or they run. Sports are pretty big back home. For me, I am going to try to play in some tournaments and see how it goes.”