The Story Of The Youngest NCAA Coach Shows A Massive Disparity Between Italian And American Sport’s Systems - UBITENNIS
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The Story Of The Youngest NCAA Coach Shows A Massive Disparity Between Italian And American Sport’s Systems

Nico was born in Cagliari, he has two university degrees which he received in Florida, and he coaches the Rollins College tennis Team at only 23 years old. His story shows why everything is different overseas.

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In the United States, the term ‘education‘ does not translate, to the concept of ‘education’ that we are familiar with in Italy or in Europe. Even the term ‘college‘ does not correspond to the Italian and European universities. In the United States colleges are much larger structures with world-class facilities; they are in fact small towns. Some of them even have their own police department. Extracurricular activities are one of the main ways in which students express their talents outside the classroom and are fully supported by the universities.

 

Among these activities we have sports. Not in the sense that the student has to sneak off campus to play tennis, perhaps feeling guilty for taking time away from books. In college, sports are a very serious matter. There are teams, coaches, there are stadiums with thousands of seats. The Tiger Stadium in New Orleans hosts the home games of the University of Louisiana football team and can hold more than one hundred thousand people. That’s about 250% of the Juventus Stadium capacity! Everything is under the NCAA. The NCAA was founded 114 years ago, it manages sports competitions and championships among US colleges. Don’t let the “university sports status” fool you. They take it extremely seriously and most professional football and basketball professionals are required to spend a year in the NCAA. The second of the six titles won by the University of North Carolina basketball, in 1982, materialized thanks to the decisive basket of Michael Jordan in front of 60,000 people and 17 million viewers. (Four times the spectators who attended the Wimbledon final between Federer and Djokovic last year).

The point is: in the United States you don’t have to choose whether to pursue a university degree or play sports at a high level, dreaming of a future as a professional athlete. You can do both.

It would be too simple to conclude that American sports culture, combined with the concept of education, is light years ahead of the Italian one. “I wouldn’t say so. It is a parallel universe. It’s like living on another planet, it’s not better or worse: it’s just different. The concept of the Italian university is not comparable the American college experience.” To tell us this difference is Nicolò De Fraia, known as ‘Nico’, since most Americans struggle with the pronunciation of his full name. In fact, Nico lives in Orlando, Florida, and at only 23 years old he is the Head Coach of the Rollins College tennis team. Difficult to track all the ages of all the coaches of the NCAA teams, but there is a rumor that Nico is the youngest of all; he is certainly among the youngest.

Nico was born and lived in Cagliari up to his teenage years; after being among the best under 12 and under 14 tennis players in Italy he moved to the Bruguera Academy in Barcelona for two years. He never returned home: first, he landed at the Evert Academy in Boca Raton, where in addition to the tennis training, he concluded the unusual ‘trilingual’ high school course started in Cagliari and continued in Barcelona. ​​Consequentially, after high school, he accepted a tennis scholarship to play for the University of Central Florida (UCF), the largest university in the United States- with nearly 70,000 students this year. In 2017 he obtained his first degree in psychology and in the meantime, he trained under the wing of UCF Head Coach, John Roddick, Andy’s brother, and coach early in his career. Nico says: “John is a great person, like all the members of the Roddick family”. Nico talked well of  his good friend Tommy Paul, who is currently ranked number 57 in the world: “I am convinced that he will do great things, from the baseline he is really strong.”

Nico De Fraia with the team at Rollins College

In search of a prestigious business school, De Fraia moved to Rollins College in Winter Park, the top-ranked business school in Florida according to Forbes, where he took advantage of the remaining two years of eligibility to continue playing in the NCAA championship. Following the excellent results on the court, in 2019 in which he had a 20-1 record at the top position, he received the honorary mention of ‘All American’, which is a prestigious honor reserved for a hypothetical American sports team composed of the best players in the league. In the same year, he completed his second degree in International Business and began a Master’s degree in Business Administration (MBA), simultaneously while accepting the role of assistant coach of the Rollins College men’s tennis team. In January of this year, the previous coach retired, and Rollins promoted Nico to the role of main coach which he holds with another coach.

 

Nico De Fraia’s story highlights the possibilities offered by American academic-sports programs to those who deserve them. Nico moved from UCF, University ‘Division I’, to Rollins College, which instead is in ‘Division II’ (there is also Division III). The difference is not purely sport based. The fact that in Division I colleges sports play at a semi-professional level which goes hand in hand with large monetary investments and intense recruiting methods, which favor the formation of more competitive teams. Nico says that in some games at UCF there was live TV. In prestigious Division II (and D-III) colleges, the focus becomes academic: in most cases, it makes no difference whether the candidate is an athlete or not, he must still have certain grades to be accepted.

This helps the growth of young athletes, who can make their choices based on their academic and athletic levels at 18 years old. A fundamental aspect of the youth’s developing path. Nico helps us understand this concept with the example of Jannik Sinner on one side, and Kevin Anderson and John Isner on the other. “Sinner is 18 years old and he is a top 100 ATP player; for him, it would make no sense to go to college because it would take time away from a professional career already started. However, if at that age the player is not developed enough to be a top professional, he can get an education and compete at semiprofessional levels until the age of 23 years and grow as a player and as a person, like Anderson and Isner did.” In fact, they faced each other as students, in a match for the NCAA title in 2007, when they were 21 and 22 respectively, and eleven years later competed for access to the Wimbledon final, during a grueling semi-final to the bitter end which sent the South African to challenge (unsuccessfully) Novak Djokovic.

The crucial difference between the two systems is that from the Italian, or more generally European tennis training path, a young athlete who has unsuccessfully attempted to become a professional is usually stuck without a valid working alternative because he invested everything in the sport. An athlete who instead attended college and at the same time tried to play tennis, even in case of failure, still has all the possibilities to build a professional curriculum outside of sports. These are possibilities that obviously must be seized by means of commitments, sacrifices (also economic), and great time management skills. Nico, who is an NCAA coach, MBA student, and will shortly begin an immersion track with NASA says: “Time management is extremely important here”.

Nico told us that he faced and beat Tsitsipas (a year younger than him) in a youth tournament when he was 15 years old, proving that he does not lack talent – and this is also supported by Claudio Pistolesi, who knows and trained him for some time in the United States. With great maturity, however, Nico also realized that probably even if he made the maximum effort, he would not have been able to make a good enough living off a career in future tournaments. The first doubts came after a shoulder injury from which he had difficulty recovering when he was still investing 100% in his tennis career. He rolled up his sleeves and left his comfort zone, first helped by the family and then walking on his own legs, and he understood that he had to invest also and above all in academics.

The skills that Nico acquired with his academic career proved to be essentials for him to manage the role of coach at a prestigious college like Rollins College founded in 1885. His roles involve sport-related decisions as well as manage the budget made available by the university and national-international recruiting. This mix of sports and academic careers makes us wonder one last question for him: How and where do you see yourself in ten years?

 

“I honestly don’t know, but I’m open to everything. I hope to be able to be in a place and position that benefit both myself and the community. Families need to understand that tennis can certainly be part of a boy’s growth, but it can’t be the top priority before a certain age, regardless of his level.”

Article originally written By Alessandro Stella and translated by Nicolò De Fraia

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Former Roland Garros champions and five top 20 players to highlight a great edition of the Ladies Open in Palermo

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The Ladies Open WTA International in Palermo will be the first tournament to be held next August since last February.

 

The Italian tournament will feature a great line-up which includes two confirmed past Roland Garros champions Svetlana Kuznetsova and Jelena Ostapenko and five top 20 players. There is a good chance that 2018 French Open and 2019 Wimbledon champion Simona Halep could be added in the field.

“We are glad about Simona Halep’s great interest in Palermo Ladies Open. We will be waiting for her at the Country Club for an historic edition of the Palermo tournament. We have been in contact with Halep’s manager for some time. We have been talking for days about her potential participation in Palermo. She is one of the best players in the world and her presence would contribute to make an already high-level tournament extrahordinary. We will leave our doors open to her for as long as possible, as well as for other top ten players that will want to resume their season in Palermo”, said tournament’s CEO Oliviero Palma.

The other stars who have signed up to the Ladies Open are 2019 Roland Garros champion Marketa Vondrousova, two Grand Slam semifinalists Elise Mertens (2018 Australian Open) and Anastasija Sevastova (2018 US Open), Aryna Sabalenka (winner at the Wuhan Open in 2018 and 2019, WTA Elite Trophy in Zhuhai in 2019 and Doha in 2020) and Elina Rybakina (winner in Hobart and finalist in St. Petersburg and Dubai in 2020), Dayana Yastremska (winner of three tournaments in Hong Kong in 2018, Thailand and Strasbourg in 2019).

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Lorenzo Sonego and Liudmila Samsonova lift the titles in Perugia

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Lorenzo Sonego and Liudmila Samsonova won the Zzz Quill Tennis Tour in Perugia. Sonego followed up his Italian title won the previous week in Todi with a 3-6 7-6 (7-1) 6-4 win over Croatia’s Viktor Galovic (world number 269 and number 7 seed) in the final of the Perugia tournament.

 

“Galovic started very well. It was difficult to adjust to his game and improve during the match. I maintained the right attitude and I managed to win the title. I enjoyed two fantastic weeks in Todi and Perugia. This confirmed my good work in training in the past two weeks. I gave my best and I am confident for the rest of the season”, said Sonego.

World number 117 Liudmila Samsonova won the women’s title came back from one set down to beat world number 307 Stefania Rubini 4-6 6-4 7-6 (8-6) in the women’s final after saving two match points.

“I won a very tough final with a lot of ups and downs. I am happy that I played many matches. It was one of my goals on the eve of the tournament. I showed that I am able to keep the level of my tennis high, when I play focused”, said Samsonova.   

 

 

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[EXCLUSIVE] Brandon Nakashima: “I Love Federer, But My Game Resembles More Djokovic’s”

Nakashima speaks to UbiTennis about his liveliest memory of training with Nadal at Wimbledon. The duels he had with Lorenzo Musetti and Tseng Chun-Hsin, the high praise for Sebastian Korda and Hugo Gaston. Why he doesn’t like clubbing and what his new coach Pat Cash has been advising him to do.

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The latest instalment of UbiTennis’ video series sees Ubaldo Scanagatta and Steve Flink speak with Brandon Nakashima. An 18-year-old American tennis star born on August 3, 2001, who goes by the nickname B-Nak.

 

He is at No.220 in the ATP Rankings (with a career best at 218) and is second-best among those who were born in 2001, trailing only Jannik Sinner. His surname is of Japanese origin, but it was his Vietnamese maternal grandfather who initiated him to the game of tennis when he was three. He is 1.85 metres tall and weighs 78 kilograms. He was born in San Diego, and his father Wesley was also born in California – his parents are both pharmacists. He played for the University of Virginia, where he was the Freshman of the Year for the Atlantic Coast Conference, before moving on to the pros.

Since Delray Beach, in February, he’s been working with Pat Cash, immediately reaching the quarter finals and beating four Top 100 players. His best shot is his two-handed backhand, and his favourite player is Federer. A superb athlete, he is considered the best American prospect. He is self-described as shy, but he actually isn’t that much, once he gets going. He loves sushi, but also admits to having a sweet tooth. Given the status of some of his victims, it can be assumed that he’s already better than his ranking.

VIDEO SCHEDULE

Minute 00:00: Introduction and recap of his highest-profile wins.

03:40: His behaviour during the Covid-19 pandemic: “I wear a mask whenever I’m outside. I’ve been trying to stay cautious as much as possible in public areas”. He also appreciates the chance of being able to train at some local private courts.

05:07: The special relationship with his grandfather: “My mom’s dad is from Vietnam. He first started to get me out on the court when I was about three and a half years old, just feeding me balls at a local park and from that time onward I started practicing more and more everyday”.

06:45: Bonding with his main coach, Pat Cash, during the pandemic.

07:38: Cash claims he noticed immediately Brandon’s “extraordinary racquet control” – does he think that this is his best quality too?

08:42: Their first meeting: “We had a couple of mutual friends; at the time I had just turned pro and I was looking for a good coach…”

11:53: His idols growing up: “I always liked to watch Federer play, but I think now my game is more similar to Djokovic’s”.

12:40: The experience of hitting with Nadal: “A couple of years ago I was playing the junior Wimbledon tournament…”

14:36: His thoughts on the best future prospects…

17:20: His transition as a pro aged only 17: “It was crucial on and off the court for me to go to college and to then play a full season at 17 [Editor’s Note: at the University of Virginia], it helped my game and made me mature as a person. I’d advise most players to go to college and get that experience…”

19:45: Recapping his best junior Slam results.

21:25: Developing his game with Pat Cash: “During these training blocks here in California, we definitely decided to work a lot on the transition and net game to add more variety into my game…”

23:55: What are his current plans? “It’s tough to plan tournaments right now since we don’t know when or if they’re even starting…”

25:35: How does he feel about the issue of playing behind closed doors? “It will be interesting, everybody is so used to people watching, so I think most players will find it maybe a little weird at the beginning…”

26:47: His off-court life: “I try to relax and have fun. I like playing other sports, on days off I play golf with friends or relax at home watching TV, just getting the mind away from tennis. I don’t like going to dance or clubs, it never was my type of feeling of going out; I like a more chill state with my friends.”

30:04: His knowledge of tennis history.

31:30: Where does Brandon see himself in 2022/23? “The goal is to keep improving my results and my rankings, and maybe…”

33:20: After the Big Three era, who is his pick to become the next world N.1?

36:10: Pat Cash’s most frequent tip: “I have to train to get ready for the Slams…”

Article written and translated by Tommaso Villa

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