Riding a scooter on the slick, narrow streets of Tortosa, Spain, eight-year-old Araceli Aleixendri savored the crisp winter air as she propelled herself forward. It wasn’t long until she fell off and broke her leg. In the first month after her injury, she wore a leg cast and traded her wheels for crutches for an additional month. Once the crutches were gone, Aleixendri went back to playing tennis.
Eight years later, she attended a tennis club that was far from her home in Tortosa but offered a more competitive level of tennis since it was in a large city with experienced coaches, more players, and better competition.
“I was taking the train two or three days a week and go in there to practice and then coming back home,” said Aleixendri. “It’s one of my best moments playing tennis.”
She would begin practice at 4:00 PM and make it home at midnight.
One night after practice, a teammate’s mother offered to drive Aleixendri to the train station. Stopped at a red light, Aleixendri and the mother waited for the light to turn green as a car approached them from behind. The driver didn’t stop. He rammed Aleixendri’s car from behind.
Aleixendri got whiplash and chronic back pain from the accident. She wore a neck brace for a week. She began playing tennis soon after. That same year, she won the Masters in a circuit tournament that draws the best in the region.
She is one of the ten international athletes from six European countries and Egypt on the Queens College women’s tennis team. It is currently the second-best team in the East Coast Conference and has competed in the annual National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament for nationally top-ranked teams for 17 years in a row.
They represent a broad spectrum of talent that has shifted American collegiate sports. According to the National Collegiate Association, the large umbrella organization that oversees and regulates college athletics in the United States, there are over 20,000 international students registered with the NCAA. In the 1950s, the NCAA allowed colleges to grant full rides to prospective athletes. By the 1970s, coaches were already recruiting international students.
“If you want to play sports and study, America is the place to go,” said Anica Knezevic, 24, who hails from Serbia. “The United States has athletic scholarships. They have that opportunity that you play sports for school and still do school.”
Unlike the United States, European sports are not conducted through any schools at the elementary or collegiate level. If a child wants to participate in a sport, then the family must pay for membership to a sports club at prices which may be inaccessible for some families. Knezevic’s father was a coach with her local club so she got a deep discount training with her dad.
“The poor families cannot afford schools or sports for kids,” said Knezevic. “They end up being on the streets, smoking weed, smoking cigarettes, drinking—that kind of stuff.”
Clubs can become very exclusive. Reehan Rashad, 23, began playing tennis when she was six years old with the Smouha Sporting Club in Alexandria, Egypt which has a professional soccer team. The annual price of membership for Smouha was approximately $34,000. It has since risen to over $55,000.
In Alexandria, her hometown, Rashad was the number one ranked tennis player by the time she was 20 years old. She had a rival in Smouha whose father was on the board of the club.
“He didn’t have a very nice reputation. He wanted to get me out of the way,” said Rashad. “They hung my name on the club gates that I can’t enter, I can’t practice.”
Rashad had continued playing tennis while she attended engineering school in Alexandria for two years—a rare exception among her QC teammates. The sentiment among them is that there is not enough time to attend university and participate in tennis.
“If I would go to college in Spain, I would have quit tennis. That’s why I came here,” said Ruth Artaza Martin, 21. “You cannot tell your professor I have a match, or I want to practice so I can’t study.”
The University of Alexandria required Rashad to take seven classes a semester for five years. Her grades soon deteriorated, and she boasted a 2.0 GPA when she transferred to Queens College.
“Professors used to tell me ‘you have to choose, being an engineer or playing tennis,’” said Rashad.
After advancing from junior-level competition, many tennis players must pay for their own expenses to continue playing. Even Rashad could not afford to play past the national level in engineering school. Despite the cost and time commitment, the players shared a strong desire to continue playing tennis.
“I felt empty. I felt like something is missing,” said Knezevic, who had to quit playing tennis after attending the University of Belgrade. “I didn’t want to stop then.”
The United States posed an alluring alternative for the players to get a degree and play tennis. The country itself has a distinguished reputation around the world.
“They had an article because I go to America, it’s like something special because my whole high school class stayed where they lived,” said Luisa Auffarth, 20, of a local newspaper from her small 700-people town of Butjadening, Germany. “I was the only one going to a different continent.”
New York City holds even greater prestige for Europeans.
“I sell New York,” said Head Coach Alan Nagel, who has coached the women’s tennis team for 40 years. “Everybody wants to come to New York.”
As a Division II school in the National Collegiate Athletic Association, Queens College athletics cannot afford full-ride scholarships for all its players. Four players transferred from better-funded Division I schools to play at Queens College.
Laura Jover, 21, got a full-ride scholarship to play D1 tennis at Keiser University in Florida. Back in Spain, Laura had been studying English for a year before attending Keiser. Yet, she often had difficulty communicating with her coaches and her teammates, who were all American.
“So many times, I didn’t understand nothing, and they didn’t have patience,” said Jover.
Division I schools tend to put more pressure on their athletes.
“The mentality at my old school was more tennis and then school is coming after,” said Louisa Brunetti, 22, who played in D1 at Sacramento State University. “I was not very confident on the court. I laid so much pressure on myself, and I expected so much that it’s really – just was overwhelming.”
After transferring to Queens College, her perspective on tennis changed.
“We had fun. We laughed,” said Brunetti. “I didn’t feel disliked. I didn’t feel that I was being overlooked the whole time.”
A unique feature of American collegiate tennis is that the focus is on team play and collective success, as opposed to the singles-centered style of tennis play in the rest of the world.
“There’s someone to share the craziness with them,” said Coach Nagel. “They don’t have their parents, but they have each other.”
Rosemary Stribling is the director for the Runner Ambassador program at California State University which helps international student-athletes adjust to life in the United States.
“As an athlete, you’re with your team most of the time,” said Stribling. “International student-athletes already have that family experience with their team.”
Seven of the players share the same house and the others live only a few blocks away.
“We are like a small family,” said Laura Jover.
“I feel like this is more like a home for me,” said Lovisa Engstrand, 22, who transferred to Queens College this fall. “Last year, I wanted to go home sometimes.”
Most of the players are planning to work in the US after graduating through the Optional Practical Training program which allows students on an F-1 visa to gain temporary employment for one year.
“If I didn’t have a desire to return to my family, I would try to stay,” said Line Aasen, 21 of Norway. “I will look back at this experience in 5, 10, 20 years and appreciate much more than I do now.”