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Tuesday, November 30, 2021
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‘Stronger together’: International students thrive on women’s tennis team

Student-athletes from nine different countries embrace sport, school and each other in Buffalo

Eight of the nine members of UB’s fully-international women’s tennis team gather around head coach Kristen Maines during practice.
Eight of the nine members of UB’s fully-international women’s tennis team gather around head coach Kristen Maines during practice.

On a recent Monday afternoon in November, eight of the nine members of the UB women’s tennis team assembled in the Miller Tennis Center for practice.

With Justin Bieber’s “Peaches” echoing from the loudspeakers, the student-athletes — all of whom hail from countries outside the U.S. — gathered excitedly around their coach.

“Let’s go Bulls,” they chanted in heavy accents.

“Let’s go Bulls,” their coach, Kristen Maines, chanted in return.

Maines, a Western New York native and 2006 UB graduate, is an unlikely choice to lead a team full of international student-athletes. Sporting striped leggings, an oversized coat and a thick Buffalo accent, Maines looks more like a student-athlete — or a mom who spoils her kids’ friends with treats — than a record-setting coach.

But that may be what endears her most to her team and has made her one of the most successful coaches in program history. Spend five minutes with her, and she’ll demonstrate her patience and approachiveness. She’ll also leave little doubt as to how she’s able to command what is likely the most ethnically diverse college sports team in the country, drawing in athletes from five continents and nine distinct countries.

“From a team dynamic, the sense of family is much stronger, because everyone is leaving what they know to come here, and they’re really reliant on each other,” Maines told The Spectrum in an interview, her voice filled with passion. “This isn’t, ‘I can go stay with my family for the weekend, I’m leaving this weekend.’ They’re here all the time together. Just from a team dynamic, it’s such a strong group, which is a huge advantage when you’re playing a team sport.”

The team hasn’t had a domestic player since 2018-19, when two Buffalo natives took the court for the Bulls. The current roster features athletes from Armenia, France, Greece, Colombia, Turkey, Mexico, Germany, Taiwan and South Africa — countries as different as the athletes who hail from them.


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The UB women’s tennis team features student-athletes from nine different countries.


“It’s actually pretty good,” Azra Deniz Comlek, a junior international trade major from Istanbul, Turkey, said about the group’s dynamic. “We learn the other countries’ cultures and it’s really fun [to be in this environment].”

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“You’re asking questions to the worst English speaker,” her friend and teammate, Ambre Amat, an Antibes, France native, interjected.

“That’s f—ng true,” Comlek said, laughing.

This team dynamic — on full display at practice, but also off-the-court — is the result of Maines’ “three-pronged triangle,” which is put to the test when she hits the recruiting trail. The coach who is affectionately called a “second mom” by her players talks fervidly about finding good athletes, students and people.

“I’ve said this from the beginning: you can be a phenomenal tennis player, but if one of the other pieces isn’t here, this just isn’t going to be the right fit,” Maines said.

The team’s reliance on international student-athletes is born from a desire to gain a competitive advantage over its rivals. Often, the highest level high school tennis players from the New York area dream of playing at high level schools, like the Ivies or the southern elites.

Playing year-round on outdoor courts and in front of ivy buildings is quite alluring for domestic high school tennis recruits; Maines, UB’s record-holder in career singles and doubles wins, says she once wished to play for a major program, too.

With that in mind, Maines says she often has no choice but to look overseas in order to “consistently win championships in our geographic region.” The Bulls won 2017 and 2018 MAC titles and went 4-0 in fall play this year. Other UB coaches, like those on former football coach Lance Leipold’s staff, have communicated similar recruiting strategies.

But Maines says she also looks overseas for an equally virtuous reason: her international student-athletes take great pride in their academics.

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Senior Hsin-Yuan Shih (black shirt) and junior Lolina Schietekat Sedas (gray shirt) share the court during a recent practice.

“My philosophy as a coach is that you’re a student-athlete,” Maines said. “You’re not just coming here to play tennis. And that is a big draw for a lot of tennis players, especially our international ones. Typically, they’re very well-educated kids. So having academics be first and foremost, that’s a big part.”

The women’s tennis program posted a school-record 3.937 GPA last semester and landed a program-record six players on the Academic All-MAC Team. But it’s not just outsiders who’ve noticed; the athletes on the team have recognized, and embraced, their title as students.

“We’re nerds,” Lolina Schietekat Sedas, a junior industrial engineering major from Mexico City, said. “When you’re in the same environment where everyone else is studying, you feel like you have to study too.”

“We didn’t even realize we were doing that well either [until we saw our cumulative GPA],” Comlek said. “I’m the laziest person ever and yet I still study sometimes [because of my teammates].”

“I’m not coming all the way here [to the U.S.] not to do my best,” Gabriella Akopyan, a fifth-year business administration major from Yerevan, Armenia, said. “Since we’re all athletes, we’re super ambitious and that helps as well.”

The women’s tennis program has built a reputation as a high achiever in the classroom. Maines says recruiters — many prospective student-athletes now employ recruiters, or recruiting agencies, to help connect them with programs — will only send her staff student-athletes who are as committed to the former portion of that phrase as they are the latter portion.

“In the first email, most kids will send out [their] SAT score or high school GPA,” Maines said. “If you’re not a good student, I don’t care how good of a player you are — I’m not even going there.”

Nikoleta Antoniou-Karademitrou, the team’s captain and a senior psychology major from Volos, Greece, says the group’s desire to succeed in the classroom stems from the privilege they are afforded as student-athletes.

“When you come as an international [student] and have to take English exams, you appreciate the responsibility that you have and you know that you’re supposed to work, so that’s what we do,” she said. “We all have career plans outside of athletics, so we try to achieve that.”

This group isn’t just academically-inclined; it’s also really tight-knit and genial.

Comlek mentioned that on trips to restaurants, Maines has to repeatedly ‘Shush’ them because they can be rowdy. The team is also “always singing,” according to the athletes who were bobbing their heads to the music while comparing tennis to ping-pong during practice.

Putting together a team full of international students doesn’t come without its growing pains. Maines says her athletes often struggle with homesickness, and that many yearn for food from their home country, especially during their freshman year, when they’re living in the dorms and rarely have options outside of U.S. fare.

But these athletes are greeted by a robust support system upon arrival in the U.S., in the form of their coaching staff, UB Athletics and, perhaps most importantly, their teammates.

The team’s motto is “STRONGER TOGETHER,” something the Athletics department has since adopted. The program is led by four seniors — Akopyan, Antoniou-Karademitrou, Germany native Pia Schwarz and Taiwan native Hsin-Yuan Shih — and four juniors. Only one player, communication major Mariana Carvajal Torres, is a sophomore.

Athletes rarely transfer out; only a handful have left the Queen City before graduation over the last half-dozen years.

The players have helped each other with their résumés and letters of intent, Maines says. “All of them are involved,” she said, referencing the group’s companionship. 

Recently, Maines invited her team to her home for an annual Christmas celebration. While the athletes were excited to eat traditional meals and enjoy each other’s company, they had one particularly emblematic question: “Are we doing Secret Santa?”

“Yes,” Maines said. “We’re doing Secret Santa.”

“They just really enjoy spending time with each other,” Maines said. “You don’t see that with every tennis team. When someone is struggling, when someone is succeeding, everyone rallies around them. The sense of family we have created despite being from all over the world is special and unique. We have a special group of young women.”

Justin Weiss is the managing editor and can be reached at justin.weiss@ubspectrum.com

Hunter Skoczylas is the sports editor and can be reached at hunter.skoczylas@ubspectrum.com 


JUSTIN WEISS
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Justin Weiss is the The Spectrum's managing editor. In his free time, he can be found hiking, playing baseball or throwing things at his TV when his sports teams aren't winning. His words have appeared in Elite Sports New York and the Long Island Herald. He can be found on Twitter @Jwmlb1.


HUNTER SKOCZYLAS

Hunter Skoczylas is the sports editor for The Spectrum. In his free time, he can be found looking up random sports statistics, jamming to Fleetwood Mac and dedicating his Sunday afternoons to watching the Buffalo Bills. 

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