An unbreakable bond

Teammates Arevalillo, Alvarez share connection far beyond the court

By JEFF PLACITO
On May 1, 2014

  • Sophomore men’s tennis players Pablo Alvarez (left) and Sergio Arevalillo have formed a bond off the court that dates back to their time competing against each other as boys in their native Spain. Chad Cooper, The Spectrum

It starts with a quick glance and subtle smirk. There is a connection between sophomore tennis players Sergio Arevalillo and Pablo Alvarez that requires no words for them to understand each other.

"We just look at each other and know what's going on," Alvarez said. "There are moments that sometimes with just looking at each other we know what we mean, or know what to do because we think so similarly."

When college athletes join their teammates for the first time, a bond often begins to form. This connection is built through tireless hours of training and sacrifice that team members endure together. Arevalillo and Alvarez's history starts in Madrid, Spain, on opposite sides of the court.

Their friendship first began while playing against each other in tennis tournaments at 12 years old. Arevalillo will be the first one to tell you Alvarez beat him most of the time, but their matchups were always battles. Tennis introduced the two, but it was their personalities that made the Spaniards best friends.

Arevalillo is high-strung and outspoken, while Alvarez is laidback and observant. Their relationship is yin and yang with opposite characteristics coming together to form a strong bond. This connection was nearly separated as the two went different ways after finishing high school.

Alvarez was still looking for colleges to attend while Arevalillo enrolled at Buffalo after visiting a handful of American universities over the summer. When a player was dismissed from the Buffalo tennis team during the fall of 2012, a spot opened up on the roster. Buffalo head coach Lee Nickell asked Arevalillo for help finding a replacement. And who was the first name that came to Arevalillo's head?

Alvarez.

"We had a player let go for disciplinary reasons and another recruit not make academic standards, so I just asked Sergio randomly if he knew anyone that would be interested," Nickell said. "He told me Pablo was interested and was top 10 in juniors in Spain, so of course we jumped all over him and it worked out for the best."

From girls to music to tennis, the Spaniards are linked so tightly that it is difficult to find something they don't know about the other. The two are roommates; even when they first moved in, nothing was surprising about each other. They had already learned everything from sleeping over at each other's house regularly in Spain or playing tennis together.

For some college students, a seven-hour car ride is too much distance between themselves and their family. Alvarez and Arevalillo are 4,000 miles from home.

Their new teammates and coaches helped ease the transition, but in the beginning they relied on each other more than anyone. Arevalillo may have had the tougher change of the two, as he is a self-proclaimed mama's boy, but Buffalo ended up being exactly where he wanted to be.

"When I was in Spain, I was just a kid and my parents did almost everything for me," Arevalillo said. "So when I came here, I was like, 'Now what? I really have to do everything.' And I think that helped me grow up and be independent."

Arevalillo and Alvarez had a steeper learning curve than most freshmen leaving home for the first time. Not only were they experiencing a new country and culture, but also a new way to play the game they had played their whole lives.

Nickell explained that the on-court adjustment must be made by every college tennis player as he or she goes from an individual mindset to a team-oriented one.

"You feel a different type of pressure because everyone's success is riding on your back," Nickell said. "When you're playing personally and you go the tournament and lose, then you only let yourself down."

Although many players struggle to adapt to the college level of tennis, Alvarez quickly became accustomed to it. After going 11-8 overall in singles and 4-1 in Mid-American Conference play in 2013, Alvarez was named the MAC Newcomer of the Year.

Arevalillo did not find the same success as Alvarez in his first year, but he did find his stride in his sophomore campaign. Not only did Arevalillo record the most singles wins on the team (13) this season, but his doubles record with teammate freshman Jonathan Hannestad also led the team.

Arevalillo and Alvarez's off-the-court mentalities aid in their success on the court.

For Arevalillo, his hidden passion has come in the form of melodies and instruments; his family is deeply connected in the Spanish music scene. At a young age, he began to play the bass guitar and transitioned to the electric guitar as he learned to play almost entirely on his own with minimal instruction.

Juan José Arevalillo, Arevalillo's father, wasn't surprised by his son's talent. Arevalillo's grandfather was a professional musician and a professor at Madrid Music School. He was the first musician to use the vibraphone, a percussion instrument similar in appearance to a xylophone, in Spain and managed to play with world-class stars such as Lionel Hampton.

"With that background and some genetic inheritance, it was not strange that Sergio should be keen on music too," Juan José said.

Alvarez was not always destined to be a tennis player.

Before Alvarez learned to swing a tennis racquet, he was kicking a soccer ball. His mother, Begoña Diaz, saw the athletic ability in Alvarez from a young age when he exceled in many different sports.

"Since he was little, he always distinguished in many sports such as skiing, cycling ... and cross-country," Diaz said. "Yet, soccer was what he did best, corroborated when he passed over the first admission tests of the Real Madrid Spanish Football Club."

Parents and peers were not only ones to see his soccer skills. Elite soccer clubs in Spain noticed as well. Although his success in the youth programs showed a promising future in soccer, a growing dilemma was forming for Alvarez. When the commitment to playing both sports became too much for Alvarez and his family, he chose to focus on tennis.

Both Alvarez and his parents believed tennis was the better sport to continue playing because they said it was easier to practice in his spare time and provided a better competitive atmosphere. Alvarez's love for soccer continues to be evident in his affection for the professional soccer club Real Madrid and his favorite player, Cristiano Ronaldo.

According to Alvarez and Arevalillo, the choice to play different sports and instruments gave both of them the freedom many talented tennis players lack growing up. Many of their peers in Spain endured immense pressure from their parents to be elite athletes. This constant stress caused some of their friends to quit the sport entirely.

"Both of our families never pushed us to play a sport or to be good," Arevalillo said. "When your family puts pressure on you, you're not enjoying it because you're playing for them and not yourself."

This lack of pressure from their parents has enhanced their passion and desire to succeed even more. Instead of playing matches to please their families, Alvarez and Arevalillo are winning for themselves.

Both were critical to the Bulls' success this year, as the team competed in this season's MAC Championship game against Ball State. Arevalillo punched Buffalo's ticket to the championship match with a comeback victory to upset the No. 1 seed, Northern Illinois.

Before the title match, Arevalillo knew his best friend needed a confidence boost, so he predicted Alvarez would clinch the final point for the MAC title. Arevalillo said the entire team knows Alvarez has the "clutch" gene. Alvarez's match-clinching victories over Pennsylvania and Cornell earlier this season were the most important wins for the program, according to Nickell.

Arevalillo's prophecy looked to be emerging as Alvarez found himself in the winner-take-all match for the MAC Championship. After winning his first set, he dropped the second to force a third set. With the match tied at 6, Alvarez entered a deciding tiebreaking set.

After battling the entire season through injuries and hardships, it would seem like a storybook ending for the Spaniard to win in the pressure-packed situation. In the end, Alvarez lost 9-7, resulting in a Ball State championship.

"I fought so hard, not only for me, but for the team and my coaches and to represent UB," Alvarez said. "It gives me motivation for next year to fight for it and bring it home. I can't wait for next season because I love my team and coaches so much."

In a heartbreaking end to the season, Arevalillo's first reaction was not to be upset over losing the championship match, but to support his teammate and best friend.

"When we lost, the first thing I did was to run to him and try to hug him," Arevalillo said. "I knew I had to be there with him because he deserved that game. It was really unfair."

Alvarez and Arevalillo will always be linked together because of tennis. Their friendship started on the court and grew because of the sport they loved.

Their travels and time spent together off the court has turned the best friends into something more - it has turned them into brothers.

 

email: sports@ubspectrum.com


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