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International flavor propels UB men’s tennis to new heights

The University at Buffalo’s ranking as one of the top 20 schools in the nation in international student enrollment isn’t the biggest reason UB men’s tennis coach Lee Nickell has relied so heavily on international players.

“I recruit internationally because it’s very, very tough to get American players to view Buffalo as a tennis destination,” Nickell said. “I know that’s probably a shock. But through my international travels as a player and the contacts I’ve made as a coach, that’s why we have such an international crew on this team.”

UB’s roster of talented internationals achieved a program first last week by winning the Mid-American Conference title and qualifying for the NCAA Tournament. The Bulls visit 12th-ranked Ohio State in a first-round match on Friday.

The men’s tennis squad became UB’s third MAC champion this year, joining the women’s soccer team and the men’s basketball team. UB had just three combined MAC team champions in the previous 15 years of competition in the MAC.

All six of UB’s tennis starters and nine of the 10 players on the roster are foreign, which is not news to any avid tennis follower. Foreign players have dominated U.S. college tennis for the better part of the past two decades. Internationals make up well more than 50 percent of the starters on top teams across the country.

The fact UB’s student population is 21 percent international is an added perk for the tennis team.

“It certainly doesn’t hurt that there is a good international base at the university,” Nickell said. “The guys we recruited come to the university come not only for the tennis but the great academics the school provides.”

The tennis team has been on the verge of a MAC title throughout Nickell’s six-year tenure. This spring was his squad’s fourth appearance in the MAC final, and last year’s team held 5-4 and 6-5 leads in the deciding match before losing the final to Ball State. UB was the fourth seed in the six-team MAC this year but Nickell liked his chances.

“I don’t want to sound overconfident by any means but we went into this year with the best team we ever had,” Nickell said. “We were really disappointed with how the regular season panned out. It was partially due to a few injuries, a little lack of confidence and partially due to my tough scheduling. I scheduled knowing we were going to have a senior-laden, good team, and we took a few lumps. . . . But we all knew we had the tools to win.”

First-singles player Damien David of Montreal was the MAC player of the year last year. He and second-singles player Pablo Alvarez of Spain made second-team all-MAC this year. The third-singles player, Romanian Sebastian Ionescu, battled injuries this year but has been a stalwart for Nickell the past three years. David and Ionescu are seniors.

“They both came in with unparalleled international experience,” Nickell said. “Both were national champions in their countries. They were the best two recruits probably this program has ever had. . . . We’re going to miss them. But the crew we have coming back is a tough group of guys. We have some guys sitting on the bench who are at a level that can play for us. I fully expect us to be in the same position next year.”

Nickell has a commitment from a New York City-area recruit for next year and thinks the NCAA berth will help recruiting overall.

“We’ve gotten a little more feedback from kids in the New York area, guys who might look at Ivy League schools,” he said. “My ultimate goal is to have the team half and half, half international and half American. Now that we have this exposure, it certainly will help get us in the door of a few more recruits.”