Finding the Fit

The rocky recruitment of an international tennis player.

The recruiting process is a grind for collegiate head coaches and scouts, filled with endless days and sleepless nights. They spend numerous hours attending high-school games, pouring over film, analyzing a player’s abilities, and meeting with athletes in order to recruit the best players in the country. Even with all of this hard work, coaches and scouts aren’t guaranteed to get the recruits’ commitment. 

That’s the process for recruiting athletes from the United States, though. Adding international athletes to college athletic programs is different, and trickier still. Instead of tirelessly scouting and recruiting players, coaches are emailed and called by hundreds of international athletes who are looking to continue their athletic careers at the collegiate level. This is particularly the case with tennis, which has a major international following and ranks fourth in the most popular sports in the world according to WorldAtlas. At Marist, five of the nine men’s tennis players are international athletes.

“The outreach from international agents and players is far more substantial than from American players,” said Marist’s director of tennis and head coach of both the women’s and men’s program Gary Sussman. “I get about two emails every day from international players and agents about players who want to play in the fall or join in the spring or fall the next year.” 

International tennis athletes find their prospective schools by using the Universal Tennis Rating (UTR) system, which utilizes match scores, ratings, and weight to calculate an accurate number that represents a player’s true skill level. They then apply their rating into an algorithm that determines what teams best fits their talents. After that, the emails and phone calls can begin. 

The intense outreach by international tennis players, which occurs nearly year-round, is about more than just getting recruited to continue playing tennis. See, colleges aren’t cheap, especially not the ones in the United States. So, for many international tennis players, receiving an athletic scholarship that makes their education more affordable is imperative to their academic and athletic future. 

“It’s been ingrained in many of these international athletes that tennis is a way for them to get a great education,” said Sussman. “Once they understand their budget, and most of them do, then, depending on their level, we can put together a scholarship package.”

Of course, not every student is given the opportunity to play at a collegiate level, let alone get offered a scholarship that fits their financial needs. With so many athletes looking for a scholarship, and with Marist not offering full scholarships for tennis, only well-ranked players who fit the school athletically get recruited to the program. 

“I get a lot of messages from players with a UTR in the six to ten range,” said Sussman. “I’m not really interested in putting together a major scholarship package for those players. The larger packages go to the upper rotation players with a UTR of 11 or above.”

There has to be mutual interest, though. Marist can’t just throw scholarships at high-caliber players that fit the program and expect them all to commit. The athlete has to make sure that the school of their choosing best suits their needs academically. 

John Oxner, who is an international tennis player from Canada, understood how important it was to find the correct academic fit. 

“I was super interested in finance and thought Marist would be a great place for me to learn more and grow academically as well, which is something I take super seriously,” said Oxner.

Sussman understands the importance of an athlete’s education as well and markets the school as being more beneficial academically than athletically.

“My biggest thing with them is that you have to want to go to school at Marist,” said Sussman. “That’s the most important because if different circumstances keep you from playing you still have to go to school.”

Oxner fully understands these different circumstances. Before coming to Marist in his sophomore year, Oxner played tennis for St. Peter’s University in New Jersey. After his freshman year, St. Peter’s tennis program was shut down. Oxner, after working so hard to find the school that best suited his needs, now had to begin searching again. 

“They kind of sprung it on to us very quickly and we weren’t expecting it at all,” said Oxner. “For about a week it was a lot of scrambling, networking, talking to coaches, seeing what coaches my coach knew, what schools had seen me play, and what schools knew who I was.”

Oxner isn’t alone in this experience. Out of the five international athletes on the men’s tennis team, four of them transferred from a different school that either eliminated their tennis program or cancelled the season due to COVID-19. 

Transferring can be an extremely difficult thing for international players, who already came to an unfamiliar country where they know nobody. Now, they essentially have to go through a freshman year twice, as transferring brings about a new campus, professors, coaches, and teammates. 

Making international players and transfers comfortable on a new campus and team is key. But a coach isn’t the only leader on the team. Having an effective captain is crucial to a team’s success, as they are able to relate to their peers in a way that a coach sometimes can’t. For Oxner, senior captain Max Darrington, who was an international tennis player from England, made it that much easier for him to acclimate to a new environment as a sophomore transfer student. 

“He was so great to me without even knowing me,” said Oxner. “He welcomed me into the community of the team and into the Marist community in general.”

Now, it’s up to Oxner to do the same, as he has taken up the mantle of senior captain for the 2020-2021 season. He’ll look to find the best ways to bring the team together as a group with the same effectiveness as the captains before him. 

Even with good team leaders like Oxner and Sussman, the recruitment and acclimation process for international tennis athletes will remain a difficult one, with plenty of trials and tribulations along the way. Through this process, they will grow and learn, and there is no doubt that they will come out the other side as better students, athletes, and people.

Edited by Ricardo Martinez and Nicholas Stanziale

Photo by Marist College Athletics

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