Friday, March 14, 2003

Foreign Aid

Want a college scholarship? It helps to be a foreign tennis player.

Posted By on Fri, Mar 14, 2003 at 4:00 AM

"Sheet!"

Tennis umpire Donna Williams of Memphis was calling a college match last year when she heard a female player from France shout that after losing a point. When Williams threatened to impose a point penalty for cursing, the girl protested that she was merely saying "move your feet" -- loosely translated, of course -- in French.

Williams was unmoved. In her career she has been verbally abused by the best of 'em, including Jimmy Connors in his nasty prime. Suspecting zees ees bullsheet, she ordered the miffed mademoiselle to "lose that word!"

Like other officials, Williams carries a one-page list of forbidden phrases in eight languages, from knulla (Swedish for the f-word) to figlio di putana (Italian for son of a bitch) to couilles (French for balls) to puta (Portuguese for whore). Poofter, poo-jabber, wanker, and fanny (don't ask me) are also off-limits in addition to the familiar favorites.

A working knowledge of polyglot profanity is a handy thing to have in the new era of American college sport. Long before the Memphis Grizzlies and the NBA signed players like Pau Gasol and Yao Ming, the University of Memphis, Christian Brothers University, and other area colleges were heavily recruiting athletes from Australia, Ireland, Austria, and South America. A college tennis or soccer tournament these days is basically a little United Nations Assembly for jocks.

While state lawmakers cut programs to balance the budget and cobble together a lottery to help Tennessee students go to state colleges and universities, those same institutions are awarding full athletic scholarships worth $15,000 a year or more to scores of foreign students. (In contrast, Bicentennial Scholars -- in-state students who make high grades and a 31 or better on the ACT -- get tuition-only scholarships, and the proposed lottery scholarships are in the $3,000-$4,000 range.)

Most of these scholarships are in non-revenue-producing sports like tennis and soccer. U of M men's basketball coach John Calipari has been criticized for recruiting far-flung junior-college players like Chris Massie, who stay a year or two at the expense of the local talent. But on the U of M women's tennis team, which has eight full scholarships, freshman Kristen Noble of Germantown is not only the only Tennessean, she's the only American. Her seven teammates are from England, Spain, Austria, and India.

The U of M is hardly unique, nor is it fielding powerhouse teams. Last year's Lady Tiger tennis team was 5-16, losing to the likes of Troy State and Louisiana-Lafayette -- all stocked with international players. Memphis, in fact, is probably one of the more exemplary programs. Its women's tennis coach, Charlotte Peterson, is a U of M graduate in her 28th season and men's coach Phil Chamberlain, a native Australian, is himself a product of the international system. Tennis players' GPAs tend to be the highest of all the jocks.

Chamberlain came to the U of M in 1973 as one of the top junior players in Australia when it was the reigning world tennis power. Foreign college players were still novelties.

"I didn't know a single thing about Memphis," said Chamberlain. "My intentions were to get my degree and maybe go on the pro tour. But I played enough great players to realize I didn't have it."

He wound up becoming a teaching pro at the Racquet Club, paying back his debt to his adopted country many times over as one of the guiding forces of Memphis junior tennis and the Kroger St. Jude tournament.

But he puts no pressure on his five current international players to follow the same path, and he says the university and athletic department don't either. Some stay, some don't. They play because they're better, not only better tennis players but better all-around athletes, with multisport backgrounds in soccer, rugby, or cricket. Chamberlain makes no apologies to local players. All eight graduates of the Racquet Club's junior program were placed in college tennis programs last year, although few are good enough to play in the Southeastern Conference or Conference USA.

"I could not compete with American kids only," Chamberlain said. "Every American kid I recruit has 25 schools after him."

The United States Tennis Association, which spends about $7 million a year on junior development programs, is well aware of this. "We're encouraging colleges to adopt a maximum number of foreign players," said John Callen, executive director of the Southern Tennis Association in Atlanta. "But it hasn't been met with any success from a coaching standpoint."

A handful of college tennis coaches, including Anne Dielen at Birmingham Southern, only award scholarships to Americans. All eight of her women's players are Americans, and five of them are from Alabama. "I kind of feel like our scholarships (worth $27,000 a year) need to go to American kids because we are American colleges and universities, and as long as there is healthy competition, that is all that we need," said Dielen, whose husband is Dutch. "We certainly don't have the opportunity to export some of our student-athletes to get free educations over there."

Not wishing to sound preachy, Dielen said it ultimately depends on the pressure on the coach to win. Birmingham Southern, an NAIA school, is about to become a full-fledged member of Division 1. I said I would check back with her in five years.

"Well then," she said with a laugh, "I might not be here."

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