On the team are six of about 420 international students at the university. That’s more than half of the squad’s 11 players hailing from countries around the globe, including Poland, South Africa, Brazil, Germany and Canada. Only two of those 11 are native Montanans.
Imported talent is often a quick fix for holes in a tennis program. International recruitment can be a solution both for filling roster spots with up-to-par skill and dealing with teams’ budget hardships. The help is out there, said Jim O’Day, athletic director at the University of Montana, you just have to be willing to search for it.
Among the current top-tier players in men’s tennis, the only American near the peak of the world rankings, Andy Roddick, still only reaches the sixth slot. You won’t find another U.S.-born tennis star in the top 18. The women’s competition is much the same way, with sisters Serena and Venus Williams the only Americans even ranked in the top 30.
On the amateur level, young, international tennis talent is increasingly drifting to the U.S. to play at colleges, O’Day said. That, coupled with a much smaller number of domestic players, has led to a higher recruitment rate at universities across the board, including Montana.
The trend extends far beyond the borders of the Big Sky Country. The University of Virginia, currently the No. 1 ranked men’s tennis program in the country and the 2010 Atlantic Coast Conference champions, sports six global players. Virginia’s national recognition helps them bring in touted high school recruits from foreign countries as well as the U.S. Comparatively, Montana’s less striking resume makes it difficult to lure American tennis players away from larger schools.
Recruiting big-name high school tennis players to Montana from around the country becomes even more troublesome, O’Day said, because of the budget the team is allotted. Grizzly men’s tennis is generally given anywhere between $2,000 and $4,000 a year to recruit new players, a far smaller amount than most national powerhouse tennis programs are used to spending. Coaches use that money to find new tennis talent with the majority of it going to purchasing transportation, hotel rooms and other expenses on the road.
That number only goes so far when trying to fill roster spots, O’Day said. The goal for the team is to stay competitive and it can be tough to do that with what’s available.
“For many, many years, (men’s tennis coach) Kris Nord has had to basically recruit based on tapes and phone calls,” O’Day said. “He has not had a big enough budget to be able to go out and see a lot of kids around the United States.”
International recruitment is one way Nord stays within his budget. He said that, despite what many people believe, it costs much more money to check out local players than those in other countries. Most American kids want to make a trip to campus for an extended visit before realistically considering a school. If the player is good, the recruiter is going to want to pay for that, Nord said, and that money also comes out a recruiting budget.
“If I did that three or four times with Americans, I’m out of my recruiting budget, that’s it,” Nord said. “A lot of international kids will sign with us, site unseen. Every foreigner but (one) I’ve had in the last 10 years has signed without a visit. It only costs my recruiting budget the cost of FedExing the scholarship offer, which is like nothing.”
Recruiting so many non-Montanans becomes a bit of burden on available scholarships. The university sets aside 4.5 full-ride scholarships for men’s tennis, which can apply to Montanans, out-of-staters or international students. Out-of-state students, including those from foreign nations, pay nearly $28,000 a year in tuition, room and board, meal plans and various fees when attending the university. That’s close to twice as much as state residents even though the cost of housing and feeding a Montanan is no different than doing the same for a non-Montanan.
One out-of-state, full-ride scholarship would cover that $28,000 while one in-state, full-ride would amount to $14,000. Either way, though, each one is counted equally in the eyes of the university as a full block of funds, O’Day said, or one of the tennis team’s 4.5 to give. Providing a scholarship to those from outside Montana is therefore more costly than providing one for a local.
This is only the case because the university does not bear the full cost for all scholarships, said Jim Gibson, Montana’s assistant athletic director in charge of business and finance. Close to half of all incoming Griz students receive scholarships with money appropriated by the state of Montana, and the same goes for student athletes. Because the University of Montana is a federally funded, public unit, about $2 million of the total $4 million in scholarships handed out this year comes from public pools of money, Gibson said.
Awarding an out-of-state athletic scholarship pulls money more quickly from that government fund, he said. Once the lump sum is diminished, money from fundraisers and private donations make up the difference. Dishing out more local scholarships would then cut down on the school’s spending by requiring the university to cover less of the total scholarship cost.
O’Day said the extra money that must be applied toward scholarships is just part of the game. It’s not the university’s policy, he said, to put a cap on the total scholarship dollars, meaning the administration does not pressure Nord to award more scholarships to Montanans and fewer to everyone else.
Restricting the team to only in-state recruitment in an attempt to save on scholarship expenses would seriously affect the competitiveness of the team and “that’s a philosophical decision that is not ready to be made at this point,” O’Day said. “You always discuss it, but we’re not to the point now where we’re willing to make that philosophical change.”
Such a restriction, resulting in a team of all Montana players, would put the Grizzlies at a stark disadvantage because prep tennis in Montana is unlike other sports in the region, Nord said. Far fewer quality Montana players graduate high school and continuing to play tennis in college when compared to other states. This is a result both of the state’s slim population and its emphasis on other sports in local high schools, he said.
“I think (tennis) is a different beast,” Nord said. “There are, for instance in women’s basketball, kids in the high school system in Montana that can compete at the Big Sky level immediately. It’s maybe once every third or fourth year there's a Montana kid that I think actually can be competitive for us. That level of high school tennis just isn’t on par with our high school football or basketball.”
Nord said when he does run across an impressive high school player from the Treasure State, it can be tough convincing him to stick around and play in Missoula. The mountain town’s winters, like that of the rest of the state, don’t make for much of a tennis haven, he said.
“They’ve grown up in our climate,” Nord said, “and they’d like to see what it’s like to go to a southern school where you don’t have to worry about the weather and you don’t have to travel eight hours to play a match.”
A recent example of Nord’s trouble is Jake Behrens, a young tennis player and 2007 graduate of Missoula Big Sky High School. Behrens won a state singles title in tennis in 2006 and opted not to stay in his hometown for college tennis.
“I talked with (Coach Nord) several times but I decided to try my options elsewhere,” said Behrens, who went on to play at Boise State in spring 2008. “The Boise program felt better for me and I felt like the facilities gave me a better chance to play well and develop.”
Behrens said Boise State’s indoor tennis courts were a huge factor in helping him make his school decision. The University of Montana currently has no indoor facility and is often left out in the cold during spring practices.
Replacing the dwindling number of domestic prospects and finding new valuable players in the world is becoming easier and easier for coaches, Nord said. Through the emergence of Internet websites like YouTube, Nord’s job, and recruiting budget, has been less strained the past few years. Foreign tennis players use the Internet to post their personal highlight reels, hoping to garner coaches’ attention. Instead of sending away for tapes of players, Nord said he can now watch them instantly on any computer.
Over 28 years as Montana’s tennis coach, Nord has made many connections around the country and globe that also ease the recruiting season. If a player comes to Missoula from a school in a different country and has a good experience, Nord said, the coach from that country tends to continue ushering subsequent players in the same direction.
“There's a couple coaches I know that I trust their opinions and references,” Nord said. “That’s more valuable than an international ranking … You also find out which connections are terrible. I’ve had kids come in where I’ve trusted somebody’s opinion and found out that they were drastically off. Now I won't get burned twice in that because you’re really affecting your program and that kid when that happens.”
When a heavy dose of international recruits arrive in the States, it can make for sticky eligibility situations, said Montana’s Associate Athletic Director Jean Gee. Foreign student athletes are bound by the same eligibility rules as domestic students in order to keep their amateur status, but international students have more opportunities to jeopardize that, she said. Specifically, many foreign players run into trouble when they receive compensation for playing tournaments in their home countries, whether on purpose or by accident.
“In other countries, you’ve got all these different levels of club teams,” Gee said. “You’ve got the more elite level which almost always will cause problems. It is considered competing as a professional, and there’s even a definition of what professional means. It’s accepting pay for play as they call it.”
Club participation tends to yield fewer problems for American-born, she said. This can be attributed to the American college athletics system—an interweaving of school and sport—which is different than what exists in most of the rest of the world.
Montana tennis player Mikolaj Borkowski said a huge factor drawing him to the U.S. involved the mixing of academics with athletics, something that can’t be found in his native Poland. Most universities in Europe don’t offer a wide variety of sports, he said, so to continue playing after high school means doing so individually.
“If I wanted to stay in Poland, I would have to play tennis on my own and do college separately,” Borkowski said. “If you want to compete regularly, you have to go to a club team.”
Borkowski, a senior at Montana, said the American structure suits him better. Playing alone without affiliation to a college team would have made being a student difficult in his home country. Competing at Montana, which has a built-in support system of foreign-born tennis players, provides a comfortable environment for athletics and studies, he said.
That camaraderie has helped create a cohesive unit since Nord assumed the helm almost three decades ago. The teammates understand each other’s situations which help them build bonds very quickly.
“I think there’s a diversity aspect that we love,” Nord said. “Chemistry wise, it’s fun to have five or six different cultures sitting in a van … and hearing different languages and harassing each other. I like it. It’s not the reason I recruit that way, but it’s a fun byproduct.”