"H to the izz-O, V to the izz-Ace"
Hove makes name for himself in United States as UB tennis standout
It was a snowy night in January when Vusa Hove first set foot in the United States. Snow is not a common sight in Sub-Saharan Africa.
"The first day I arrived was the first time in my life that I'd ever seen snow," Hove said. "I was so cold that I actually had mild frostbite on my hands."
Hove made the journey from Zimbabwe just a week before classes began. In an unfamiliar country, at an unfamiliar school, one thing remained constant for Hove: tennis.
Hove had traveled halfway across the world to resume his tennis career at UB.
Now in his senior year at Buffalo, Hove has become the men's tennis team's No. 1 singles player. In his career, Hove has been named Most Improved Player in 2010, second-team All-Mid-American Conference in 2011 and first-team All-MAC and All-MAC Tournament team in 2012.
Hove's recruitment to Buffalo derived from an unexpected source: a YouTube clip.
In the video, in the deepest parts of Southern Africa - a sporting world dominated by soccer for decades - an 18-year-old Hove stands on a tennis court with the hot African sun on his back. He works the baseline and volleys back and forth with his opponent.
With each swing of the racket, he displays power that few tennis players his age can achieve. Every time he chases the ball, the viewer can't help but notice his athleticism.
This video marked the first time the Bulls' men's tennis coach, Lee Nickell, had ever seen the young Hove.
"In the video, he was hitting a few balls on kind of a raggedy court and I saw a very raw tennis player," Nickell said. "But I looked at his athleticism, and I knew that this was a guy that could really have some success here."
Four years later, Nickell's first impression of Hove has proved accurate.
"He's a very talented tennis player, but he never would have seen the success that he has without his work ethic," Nickell said. "Vusa is by far the hardest worker I've worked with in the 10 years I've been coaching."
Hove's hard work stems from countless hours of practice in his native land.
In Harare, Zimbabwe, most kids spend their days on the soccer pitch. Hove spent his on the court. Tennis is an uncommon sport in his country because of how expensive and time-consuming it can be.
Fortunately for Hove, he had an early introduction to the sport.
His father, Emmanuel Hove, who was a professor at the University of Zimbabwe, had played tennis recreationally. Emmanuel became a teacher of the game when his son was 5 years old.
"I would bring Vusa to the University of Zimbabwe courts with me and we'd knock [the ball around]," Emmanuel said. "He picked up the basic skills of the game very fast, and one day someone noticed us playing and suggested that I find him a qualified coach."
Hove began working with a coach at a local sports club just a few years after he started playing. His training proved worthwhile and led him to victories in competitive juniors tournaments in Zimbabwe - and eventually throughout Africa.
He took home the first of a series of titles in Zimbabwe's national youth tournament when he was just 12 years old. His early success earned him a spot on the Zimbabwe junior national team - an experience he said greatly impacted his tennis career.
Hove and his teammates traveled all over Africa to compete against other national teams. They traveled to South Africa, Botswana, Uganda and Mozambique, among other African nations.
"It felt like I was a professional at the time," Hove said. "They would take us on planes to other parts of Africa to compete, and we'd get to see and experience other cultures. That experience really helped to prepare me for the level of competition I would eventually face when I came to America."
When Hove grew past the qualifying age for junior tournaments, he participated in the 2009 Zimbabwe Senior Open. It was at this tournament that the young tennis star realized his potential.
"I went on to win that tournament," Hove said. "That's when I really knew I could compete at the level of college tennis."
There are two paths any successful young tennis player can take: play professionally right away or play in college and pursue an education.
Hove and his family wanted the latter.
"Any student who plays tennis in Africa wants to come to the United States to play," Hove said. "It's a major goal of many athletes growing up there."
As a college professor who had studied in the United States, Emmanuel knew going to America for school was something he wanted for his son.
"I studied at Penn State and Northwestern, so I always wanted Vusa to study in the United States as well," Emmanuel said. "I felt that Vusa's best chance for a U.S. college scholarship would be through tennis."
Hove had big-time success in his home country but being discovered by athletic programs in the United States was difficult for an athlete from Africa. Hove began searching for ways to reach out to American universities and showcase his talents. Emmanuel came up with an idea to gain exposure.
"I shot a video of Vusa playing at the University of Zimbabwe and posted it on YouTube for coaches," Emmanuel said. "We had been in contact with coaches from Cornell, Penn State, Binghamton and Wake Forest, as well as Buffalo."
Emmanuel was familiar with the University at Buffalo because of its ties to the University of Zimbabwe. A number of his colleagues at the University of Zimbabwe were UB alumni, so Emmanuel was able to gather information about the school.
Another factor in Hove's decision was that he had begun to develop a level of comfort with Nickell - a first-year coach at the time - through continuous contact.
Hove and his father eventually decided playing for the Bulls was the right decision.
"I felt that Buffalo and coach Nickell could give me the best chance to succeed," Hove said.
With the YouTube video as his only point of reference, Nickell was a bit unsure of Hove's talent level at the time, but he was ready to take a chance.
"I really wasn't expecting much more than just a good athlete," Nickell said. "But when he got here, we were all pleasantly surprised with where his game was."
Although Hove came to the states well prepared to compete, he found it challenging to balance the time between training and his studies.
The structure of Division I athletics and the bonds he developed with his teammates helped him adapt to the new culture.
"When you're coming from overseas to a place that's so different from your home, it's vital to have some guys that you can rely on," said Nickell, who once had a teammate from Zimbabwe on his college team at Furman University. "We had a couple of guys on the team that had been through that same experience and they really helped Vusa get everything set straight right away."
Hove has gained more support stateside as his family has recently moved to New Jersey.
Emmanuel got a job as a professor at Rutgers University.
As Hove and his family continue to adapt to a new country, the Bulls strive for a second consecutive regular season MAC Championship. A man who traveled halfway across the globe to pursue his passion will lead their efforts.