When senior Jose Salazar made the decision to attend the University of Oklahoma to play collegiate tennis, it wasn’t a decision he came to lightly. He couldn’t speak English and had never seen a campus as big as the ones in the U.S. He was nervous. He was hesitant, scared even.
Two years later, those same feelings returned when he transferred from Oklahoma to the UofA. Little did he know he would be walking into one of the most diverse tennis teams in the country, and his new teammates would soon become like family.
The Razorback men’s tennis team has 10 players on its roster, eight of which were born in foreign countries. That makes them one of the most diverse teams in the Southeastern Conference, which itself is a very diverse conference when it comes to tennis. Eight of the 13 SEC schools that have men’s tennis programs have foreign players that outnumber American players. The Hogs are no different.
“It was tough at the beginning, I’m not going to lie,” Salazar said. “But I knew it was the best decision for me at the time, and I still think it was decision of my life to come here,” Salazar said.
The Razorbacks have five players, including Salazar, from Spain, one player from Chile, one from France, one from South Africa and two from the U.S.
As a freshman, Salazar came to the country to an Oklahoma team that had only one other player that spoke his native Spanish language. When he transferred two seasons ago, he was greeted by three other Spanish-speaking players, plus the assistant coach, Nestor Briceno, who also spoke the language. They helped make his transition to American collegiate athletics that much easier knowing he had people who could understand his problem and help him on the academic side as well as the athletic side, Salazar said.
“The first six months was probably the hardest part, but those guys helped me take easy classes at the beginning and tutoring and all that kind of stuff to be successful in school,” Salazar said.
Salazar quickly got over the language barriers, which helped him to focus on tennis and earn SEC First Team honors last season as well as earning the Intercollegiate Tennis Association’s National Most Improved Player award. He finished the year with a 30-9 record in singles and a team-best 19-5 record in doubles.
With a group this diverse, one has to expect to learn a lot from their peers, and players said that’s exactly what happened.
“We have a lot of Spanish guys, but we’re all from different places in Spain. We have players from South Africa already and France many times so I’ve learned a little bit about them. You talk to all of them everyday, but you still learn new things.” Salazar said.
Junior Branch Terrell is the only player from Arkansas on the roster but has not been a stranger to the diversity of the game. Both his older brothers, Trey and Cameron, played college tennis as well and would have a lot of their foreign teammates over at the Terrell household down in Benton, Arkansas.
“It was pretty normal for me coming here. I kind of knew what I was getting into,” Terrell said. “Obviously, it’s very different meeting people from different countries and living life with people from different countries. I’ve learned a lot from all of them, and I hope they’ve learned a little bit from me.”
Freshman Alex Reco, from Nantes, France, is now going through many of the difficulties faced by Salazar, but his process has been made much easier thanks to all the guys on the team.
“Alex is in the same stage that (the past foreign freshman) were when they got here,” Terrell said. “My job is to kind of help him along the way and make sure he doesn’t face as many challenges as he potentially could.”
Reco credited his coach back in France for encouraging him to attend the UofA for tennis. Razorback coach Andy Jackson mentored Reco’s old coach back in the day, and that made Arkansas’ tennis program that much more appealing to Reco. Since he arrived in Fayetteville, he has created a bond with all his teammates and spends time with them outside the courts, Reco said.
“We have a good time on the weekends,” Reco said. “We play soccer all together, we all go out together to dinner. There’s a lot of inside jokes and a lot of good times.”
When it comes to building a team, it’s an added bonus to include people from all parts of the world, Salazar said.
“I think it’s good to learn about different cultures. This team gets along really well and we get to learn a little bit about all of us,” Salazar said.
While the players may not have grown up in the same way, tennis has no language, Terrell said.
“I don’t think it applies necessarily to the tennis court. It doesn't matter what language you speak. I think that’s nice, even though there’s differences between all of us, we’re all here for the same reasons and the same goal.”
The Razorback tennis team beat both Wichita State, 4-3, and Saint Louis, 6-1, on Feb. 3. The players will travel to Dallas to take on SMU at 1 p.m. Friday for their next matches.