Massachusetts Daily Collegian

UMass tennis unites under one flag

Minutewomen origins stretch from Spain to Ukraine

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(Collegian file photo)

(Collegian file photo)

(Collegian file photo)

By Tim Sorota, Collegian Staff

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If you have ever been to a Massachusetts tennis match at the Bay Street Tennis Club, it would have been hard for you to miss the flags hanging up behind both ends of each court. To the average person, each flag represents a foreign nation. To the members of the UMass tennis team, the flags mean much more.

When the players first arrive on campus, they bring the flag of their home nation. Those flags are then hung on the walls of the courts, providing a backdrop for every practice and match. Seeing a symbol of their home country fills each player with pride and a sense of belonging while adapting to their new adopted home of Amherst.

With nearly half of the team being international, UMass tennis has always been a melting pot of cultures. The tradition of hanging a flag to represent the players’ and coaches’ home nations was started by former head coach Judy Dixon and continued by current coach Juancarlos Nunez.

Ana Yrazusta played for Dixon and has played four years of head-to-head competitions in front of her home Spanish flag. The Las Palmas, Spain native knows that diversity is as much of a cornerstone of the tennis program as winning Atlantic 10 Championships.

Having always been an elite tennis player, Yrazusta found herself struggling more with adapting to a new country than adjusting to collegiate tennis when she first came to Amherst her freshman year. For comfort, she found herself looking at her nation’s flag to remind her of where she comes from.

“I’m very patriotic. When I came to America, I started to appreciate even more where I came from. It always gives me a lot of strength. I even have it on my wrist,” Yrazusta said, lifting up her sleeve to show off her red wrist band with a gold stripe. “Always remember where you are coming from.”

She also relied on her teammates (in particular, the class of 2017) to provide a sense of security and help her adapt to UMass and the tennis team. Yrazusta is using those lessons now that she is an upperclassman mentoring her younger teammates.

Janja Kovacevic leaned on Yrazusta even before she got to campus. “I think I texted her for six months straight. I am pretty sure she was getting super annoyed with me,” Kovacevic said, while Yrazusta shook her head in disagreement. “I’d text her any dumb question I had like, ‘How you get from the bus stop to AT&T in Hadley?’ It was right across the street.”

The sophomore from Zumen, Serbia helped pave the way for another player from Serbia, Jovana Bogicevic. Kovacevic has excelled in her new home earning the Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year award after her freshman season. She also earned A-10 Player of the Week for the week of Feb. 21.

Kovacevic and Bogicevic are one of two pairs of teammates who are from the same country that is not the United States. Senior Laura Moreno joined her fellow countrywoman Yrazusta on the tennis team before her sophomore year. Moreno spent her freshman year at Goldey-Beacom College in Delaware after attending high school at IES Ingeniero de la Cierva in Murica, Spain.

The two Spaniards, who met when they were both 13 years old, have been doubles partners all year long. They have provided a stable and fierce team that has had a lot of success competing at the first and second positions.

In addition to two flags from Serbia and Spain, there is an Italian flag for Martina Bocchi, a Ukrainian flag for Anna Napadiy and a Venezuelan flag for first-year head coach Nunez. Assistant coach Ruth Seaborne has her native country of England’s flag hanging from the rafters as well.

Junior captain Ruth Crawford knows why her team is successful year in and year out. “I think we’re able to click so well because we are all such good friends,” she said. “Actually, we are more like sisters.”

Crawford, who was born in Ghana but attended high school in Atlanta, has competed alongside players from Serbia, England, India and the United States in doubles competitions throughout her career.

The family atmosphere which was bestowed on upperclassman like Crawford when they were underclassman is sure to be passed onto any new freshman who enters the program for the foreseeable future. This is one of the program goals for Nunez.

“I can remember all the challenges that faced me as a student athlete,” Nunez said. He left his home country of Venezuela to play tennis for University of Arkansas, Little Rock. “It can be really scary, but that is where the team really helps. By already having the tennis family, when you step on campus for the first time, you do not feel so lost in the shuffle.”

Prior to taking the head coaching position at UMass, Nunez spent two years at Brown following six seasons as an assistant coach for the Minutewomen serving under Dixon. He learned about the flag tradition and the way the team is as much of a melting pot of cultures as any other sport on the Amherst campus.

“It is so cool to be a part of so many different countries and cultures coming together under the UMass Amherst tennis flag. We are really a family,” Nunez said.

The first-time head coach has a lot of reasons to be proud. Whenever he steps onto the court for practice, he sees a reminder of where he came from, where his players came from and the flag which unifies them all: “UMass Tennis.”

Tim Sorota can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @timsorota.

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