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.”
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
Petra Kvitova Powers Past Dodin At Roland Garros
Petra Kvitova sealed her place in the second round with a strong win over Oceane Dodin.
Petra Kvitova sealed her place at the second round of Roland Garros by powering past Oceane Dodin 6-3 7-5.
The Czech Republican took advantage of the indoor conditions as she hit 29 winners in the match.
Despite Dodin’s impressive level in the second set, Kvitova raised her game to seal victory.
Round two will see Kvitova take on Aliona Bolsova or Jasmine Paolini.
The two-time grand slam champion approached Roland Garros, with limited expectations after admitting that clay isn’t her most comfortable surface.
An agonising fourth round defeat to Shelby Rogers at the US Open would also put into perspective how tough it is to win a grand slam.
However her first round match against Oceane Dodin couldn’t have started any better as in the first set, she was irresistible on serve.
Only losing two points on her serve and none on her first serve was the ideal start as the indoor conditions on Chatrier suited her game.
Hitting aces and winners for fun signalled positive signs for the Czech Republican as she looked to make a statement early in the tournament.
However her French opponent took the match to Kvitová in the opening stages on serve as she showed moments of power especially with the backhand.
Constructing the points well, Dodin found comfort on her serve but was unable to produce any of these qualities in her return game.
As Kvitová continued to target the Dodin forehand, more unforced errors were produced as the 7th seed eventually found the crucial break in the eighth game.
A comfortable service hold sealed an impressive set for Kvitová, 6-3 in 30 minutes.
The second set saw both players trade breaks to start the set as Dodin started to raise her level.
More power and more accuracy with her shots saw the Frenchwoman find rhythm with her play as she took more risks.
Although Kvitová was inconsistent, Dodin continued to trouble the big-serving Czech as an entertaining match was evolving.
In order to stop the momentum, Kvitová shortened the points by going to the net and varying up her tactics.
Eventually Kvitová managed to pile on the pressure when it mattered most as a crucial break in the eleventh game was greeted with a huge roar.
An entertaining match met its climax as a powerful Kvitová forehand volley sealed victory in 1 hour and 20 minutes.
A good opening round performance from Kvitová in what was a tricky second set against Dodin who raised her level.
In round two, Kvitová will meet Aliona Bolsova or Jasmine Paolini.
Is Andy Murray’s French Open Crushing A Blip Or A Sign Of Things To Come?
Murray was nowhere near his best but how much should be read into his latest defeat?
When the draw for the French Open men’s tournament took place there was one first round match that caught everybody’s attention.
Andy Murray was pitched to play against Stan Wawrinka in what would be their 21st clash on the Tour and a repeat of the 2017 semi-finals. Some went as far as billing it as the match to see on the opening day of the 2020 Championships but in reality it turned out to be a let down. Leaving Murray facing some uncomfortable questions.
The showdown of the Grand Slam winners concluded with Wawrinka comprehensively winning 6-1, 6-3, 6-2, in exactly 100 minutes. Although amazingly almost a quarter (23 minutes) of that match took place over the first three games. Murray was nowhere to be seen, lacked his fiery passion and seemed to almost admit defeat before it had even happened.
“I need to have a long, hard think. It’s not for me the sort of match I would just brush aside and not give any thought to,” Murray said after.
“There are obviously reasons behind a performance like that. I think that’s probably in terms of scoreline, I might be wrong, but I think that’s maybe the worst of my career in a Grand Slam.’
“I don’t feel like the conditions are an excuse for it. I don’t feel like that’s a valid reason, maybe to not enjoy the matches as much when it’s like that, but not in terms of it shouldn’t affect your performance in any way.”
Amid the concern it is important to put Murray’s latest match into some context. His clash with Wawrinka on clay was the first time he has played a competitive match on the surface since 2017 at the same event. Coincidentally it was also against Wawrinka but in the semi-final stage. Since then he has undergone one hip surgery, publicly admit that he may be forced to retire due to health issues and then undergo a second hip procedure which practically saved his career.
The Brit is known and respected for his fighting spirit on the Tour but in reality is the curtain starting to slowly come down on his illustrious career?
“There have been matches that I have played since I came back where I hit the ball well. I know it wasn’t the best match at times, but (Alexander) Zverev was a couple of points away from winning the US Open, and I won against him the week beforehand,” an upbeat Murray reflected.
“It’s going to be difficult for me to play the same level as I did before. I mean, I’m 33 now and I was ranked No. 1 in the world, so it’s difficult with all the issues that I have had.”
Undoubtedly Murray still has the tools to threaten others on the ATP Tour but when it comes to best-of-five matches there is more uncertainty. Since 2018 he has only been able to play singles in four Grand Slam events due to injury setbacks and hasn’t won back-to-back matches at any of those. Leaving the question of where does he go from here?
Potentially he could try to change his game in some way or even consider playing just doubles at Grand Slams which he did at Wimbledon last year. Although Murray is stubborn and rarely gives in when he is facing adversity. For him, the plan is to make the most out of what he has and hope for the best.
“I don’t think it’s going to be that easy for me to change at this stage in my career, even though it’s something I have considered and looked at,” he said.
“When I play my best tennis of being an offensive baseliner that’s what I need to make sure I am doing.
“I need to play better to allow me to play the right way.”
It remains to be seen what will happen to Murray in the coming months. Although he can seek solace in the continued support from his peers which Wawrinka emphasized during his press conference.
“Andy won everything that you can win in tennis. He was No.1. He had an amazing career. He’s been back now after having hip surgery. Nobody expected him to come back on the tour. He’s getting back, he’s an amazing champion and it’s always going to be special to play against him,” the Swiss player concluded.
Unfortunately the chances of Murray expanding his Grand Slam trophy collection are slim at present. He could prove critics wrong like he has done with his hip recovery but it could be argued that this would be an even greater achievement.
Murray is down, but not quite out just yet.
‘Be Prepared For The Worst’ – Blustery French Open Draws Concern From Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sakkari
The women’s seeds kicked-off their Roland Garros bid with straight-sets wins but voiced their concerns about the conditions in Paris shortly afterwards.
Victoria Azarenka made a dream start to her French Open campaign on Sunday despite mounting concerns over the conditions at this year’s tournament.
The 10th seed eased to a 6-1, 6-2, win over Montenegro’s Danka Kovinić but the talking point of that match was mother nature. Three games in Azarenka and her rival walked off the court after expressing unhappiness about the rain. Tournament official, Claire Wood, asked the former world No.1 to remain on the court until a decision was made by the referee’s office but she proceeded to walk off anyway.
“I think my opponent slipped a bit in the third game so she was also feeling a bit uncomfortable. I just asked are we still going to continue to play. Then Claire told me if I am willing to wait a little bit longer until the drizzle stops. I said absolutely not because I don’t see the point in sitting on the court when it’s eight degrees,” Azarenka told reporters after.
“I know, the conditions are the same for everybody.
“It’s very tricky at the moment with the conditions and I am not going to sit here and complain but sometimes I think there are smarter ways to handle the situation.“
Despite the mini break it did little to disrupt the momentum of the US Open semi-finalist who won nine out of 11 games played when she returned to action. Overall Azarenka won 79% of her first service points and didn’t face a single break point throughout.
This year’s French Open is taking place later than usual due to the COVID-19 pandemic and therefore the climate is much cooler. On top of that officials at the tournament have decided to change the ball to Wilson in a move that some players say is heavier to hit and slower.
“When you play at eight degrees it’s tough. There are adjustments you have to do. We can only predict if it is going to happen. Does it increase the risk of players getting injured? Absolutely,” Azarenka commented.
“Right now, I try to focus on what to do on the court and not what is not good.”
Azarenka is not alone in expressing her reservations. 20th seed Maria Sakkari said she hadn’t played in such conditions ‘for a long time’ following her 6-0, 7-5, win over Australia’s Ajla Tomljanović. The Greek number one overcame a patchy run of form during the second set by winning four games in a row from 3-5 down to move into the next round.
“It’s something that we are not used to. Personally, I haven’t played in these conditions for a long time. Not even practising. I think it is tough for everyone,” she said.
“It’s not nice to play in these conditions but we are professionals and are lucky to be playing here.
We have to just get used to them.”
The cold weather does elevate the risk of potential injuries occurring to players at Roland Garros which many are wary about. Although Sakarri is taking it all in her stride before admitting that she is prepared for the worst case scenario just in case.
“Warm up well and take good care of your body. It’s not the best conditions you can play but you just have to be mentally prepared for the worst,” she stated.
It was always inevitable that such situations were going to happen given the time of year the tournament is taking place. But some are wondering if Roland Garros should have go on at all this year?
“I wouldn’t particularly say so because I do believe that I want to play. We all want to compete and we want to play,” Azarenka weighed in on the debate.
“I think that there should have been better adjustments,maybe a little bit more consulting and heads up and conversation. I think that’s where we can improve, for sure.”
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