By Rob Schabert, Assistant Athletic Director for Sports Information
As April began, Oleksiy Arovin – he says to call him Alex, it's easier to pronounce – had won 11 consecutive tennis matches. Playing in the No. 1 singles spot in the Tennessee Tech lineup, the sophomore transfer from Oklahoma State had built an impressive 20-10 individual record since September.
But lining up against the best player each opponent sends against him isn't the primary concern these days for 20-year-old Arovin. Keeping in touch with his family and his girlfriend, Slava, is something he tries to do every other day via Skype.
Alex comes from Donetsk, an industrial city in Ukraine, a country that has its hands full right now wondering what Russia's next move will be. His homeland, Ukraine, is at a pivotal point in its history, and there's nothing Alex can do about it.
"My parents are there, my friends are all there, so I pay attention to what's going on," he says. "Am I worried? Of course I'm worried. I'm worried about my family, my friends, my girlfriend. A lot of people have died. A lot of people are in trouble.
"I can't do anything about it," he admits. "All I can do is see it, and talk about it, but I cannot do anything about it."
Alex has been a traveler his entire life, having visited dozens of countries across both Eastern and Western Europe.
"I began my world travels when I was born, my parents tell me. They say the day after I was born we went to Crimea, and all my life I have traveled. There is not a year – or even six months – go by that I'm not traveling."
He began playing tennis when he was four years old and soon began competing around Ukraine, and eventually all throughout Europe.
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"I spent a lot of money to play in these tournaments," he says. "I became ATP ranked, but I ran out of money. That's how I ended up at Oklahoma State. An assistant coach saw me at a tournament and offered me a full scholarship. Of course I took it."
Things didn't work out like he had hoped at Oklahoma State. He spent one year playing for the Cowboys, including a match against Tennessee Tech. He never really liked Stillwater and the flatlands.
"It was like a desert," he says. "I did not like it at all."
So he began searching for a new place to call home and continue his tennis career. He remembered playing against Tennessee Tech because the Golden Eagle roster last year featured several players who spoke Russian, including assistant coach Alex Chen.
"I knew some of these guys from when we played, and I liked them," Alex admits. "And, my girlfriend's favorite color is purple. When I played against Tennessee Tech, I thought, 'I like this school' because they wear purple. I like purple much, much better than orange (of OSU). So, that's how I came to Tennessee Tech."
He arrived on the Cookeville campus in time for the 2013 fall semester, immediately gave up his orange clothing and got himself decked out in purple and gold. And, he began to make an immediate impact on coach Kenny Doyle's team, pushing for the top spot in the rotation.
Already established as one of the best players in the Ohio Valley Conference in his first season on the squad, Alex says he enjoys playing for Doyle. He also gets along fabulously with his teammates, who hail from Spain, Brazil, Uzbekistan, the United States and Russia.
Russia? Yes, the team's only senior, Vasily Eremeev, is Russian. That geographic fact simply doesn't affect the team's chemistry.
"When I first met coach (Doyle), I liked him," Alex admits. "I thought he had the best personality I have met. He's always trying to be positive, even when we're not doing well. He always finds the positive. After a match, he analyzes the good stuff. He talks to us about how we can be better. He finds the things we did well and we talk about that. He's always trying to help us."
That help is aimed for both on the court and off.
"After every practice, he asks us what we need," Alex says, admitting that the veteran coach serves not only as a mentor but also somewhat as a father figure to his players.
"We're not just a team, we're like family," Alex says. "We hang out together. We fight together. And coach is the leader of that."
Sitting on a bench in the middle of the Tech campus tennis courts, Alex, Eremeev and junior Artem Tarasov (from Tashkent, Uzbekistan) watch their teammates compete in unfinished matches. Their conversation is lively…and in Russian.
What's happening in Ukraine these days, with Russia taking control of Crimea and possibly threatening to do the same with other parts of Alex's country, does not alter the friendship he has forged with the Russian on his team.
"My mother is from Krasnoyarsk (Vasily's hometown in Russia, near Siberia), so I know his town," Alex says. "I've been there three times, when I was 10, 12, and 14 years old. We went there to visit my grandparents."
Donetsk, the city where Alex grew up, is an industrial city located in Eastern Ukraine, not that far from the border with Russia. It was founded, Alex explains, by Welsh businessman John Hughes, to take advantage of mining in the region. Hughes constructed a steel plant and several coal mines.
Today, Donetsk is known as the "City of a Million Roses," a major economic, industrial and scientific center of Ukraine with a high concentration of skilled workers, but it also remains the center of Ukraine's coal mining and steel industry.
"There are three big factories for the metal industry," he explains. "It started as a small village but it has grown to more than one million people. My father, when he was a student, he worked in the factories. I think every man who ever lived in my city has worked at one time in the factories.
"Even I did," Alex says. "It was only for two weeks. It was a lesson from my father, to show me what life is like if you work in the factories. It was a good lesson.
"I controlled the ovens. They smelled bad. And the heat is crazy. When you leave, you still smell it. It is very dirty."
Which is worse, the smell or the heat?
He thought about it for a few seconds, and said, "The loneliness."
"After this lesson, I knew I needed to work hard so I won't end up doing that. My father doesn't work there any more. Before I was born, my family was very poor, but now they are middle class.
"My father is a chemist," Alex explains. "He discovered a cheaper way to produce gasoline and sustain the same quality. He started his own business, and he became successful."
Checking in with his family via Skype on a regular basis. Alex knows his family is safe…for now.
"My family is okay, but they are ready to go somewhere," he admits. "We have friends in Russia, Kazakhstan, Europe. It's very dangerous to be in the streets right now.
"It wasn't like that in December when I visited. I was on the main street, I stood on the street where the revolution started. There were peaceful meetings. After I came back here, everything is now changed."
The biggest change is that Crimea, the Southernmost part of (what was) Ukraine has been invaded by Russian troops.
"Crimea is now part of Russia. Every summer I spent there. It's a beautiful place. There wasn't a border. It was a tourist site. All of my friends went there. It's one of the most famous tourist destinations in (what was) the U.S.S.R.
"I feel sad. It's like if Canada came and took over Florida or California. You have friends in Florida or California, and you say 'what the hell is going on' but there is nothing you can do."
What happens in Ukraine in the coming weeks and months is something Alex is watching closely.
"There is really no government right now in Ukraine. Elections of president will be in two months (May 25). The people are less interested now in the race for president than the situation in Crimea and Russia. Nobody knows what will happen. It's a terrible situation right now. The factories have stopped. People are homeless. People are not getting paid. Banks are closed. Nothing is controlled. The police are afraid to go in the streets."
But any issue with Russia doesn't mean it's causing problems between the Ukraine and Russian people. Alex and Vasily, his Russian teammate, get along great despite the differences in their countries politics.
"Vasily sees only the Russian side, I see the Ukrainian side. I read two newspapers and there are two totally different sides to the story. I don't talk with him about politics. He has his mind all set, and won't listen to another opinion. He tries, almost every day. He sends me something trying to involve me, and I know how it's going to end. So I don't even look at it," Alex says.
"Russia and Ukraine have not been enemies," Alex says. "It's the Russian government. Putin has become more and more popular in Russia. He has to show the Russian people he is a strong leader. The people in Europe are starting to dislike the Russian people because of it. They are beginning to think of the Russians as invaders."
Fighting back is not a viable option for Ukraine, according to Alex.
"My biggest fear right now is that Ukraine will mobilize an army and try to attack Crimea to get it back," he says. "If I were in the government, I would try to keep it peaceful. A war against Russia would be stupid. Much of our economy is based on trade with Russia.
"We can't win in a war with Russia," he says.
With so much swirling back home, how does Alex keep enough focus to roll through such a long winning streak on the tennis courts?
"The main question is to ask yourself for what are you fighting. Before I left Ukraine, I told my girlfriend that I will fight for our future. When I step on the court, I am fighting for my future. When you're face-to-face with a challenge, you don't think about money or politics, only the moment.
"If you're fighting for something that's really important, you're fighting for that moment. There is only you and the moment," he says.
His future, he explains, includes being a successful tennis player, getting a degree and getting a good job.
"Every day is a new lesson," he says. "I hope to be a tennis player. Of course, I will do everything I can to achieve that. But nobody knows what is going to happen tomorrow. I don't make huge plans. I have goals, but not huge plans."