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April 12, 2010

Word of mouth - Virginia Tech's strong reputation among former players keeps the Hokies stocked with talent

By: Matt Kovatch

Luka Somen

Italy, Chile, Canada, Ecuador, Croatia.

The list reads like Anthony Bourdain’s flight itinerary for his show No Reservations on the Travel Channel.

But it’s actually the list of countries from which the members of the Virginia Tech men’s tennis team hail. Seemingly more so than any other collegiate sport, tennis features student-athletes from foreign countries all over the world. Why is it that way? It’s a question asked often by those not familiar with tennis, but according to Virginia Tech head coach Jim Thompson, the answer is really quite simple.

“In the U.S., basketball and football are just so much more popular than anything else,” Thompson said. “If you turn on the news and they mention tennis, it’s a miracle. But if you look worldwide, tennis is a huge sport. In Europe, it would be amazing if you turned on the news and they didn’t mention tennis. It’s so much more well thought of overseas, and because of that, they get more of their better athletes playing tennis. In the U.S., we don’t get our best athletes playing tennis because they are busy with other sports. Therefore, even though we’re a large country, the pool of players has become very small.”

As a result, tennis coaches like Thompson search far and wide for potential prospects. Because it’s obviously tough to see many of those international athletes in person, they rely heavily on two things: the Internet and word of mouth. Thompson is constantly tracking tournament results and junior world rankings online, though he admits that word of mouth – especially through former players still active in the tennis scene – is the best way to find a hidden gem in a foreign country.

“That’s a big help, for sure,” Thompson said of keeping in touch with former Hokies in other countries who are keeping an eye out for young talent. “I think that says a lot about our university and our program – that the guys who have played for us liked Blacksburg and liked Virginia Tech. They’re telling people how good of an experience they had and how great Virginia Tech is.”

Two of those former players, Dinko Gudelj and Davor Dupljak, are from Croatia and are directly responsible for finding current sophomore Luka Somen, who has been one of the Hokies’ top players this season with an 11-4 dual-match record and a national ranking of No. 61 at press time.

All three share the same hometown of Karlovac, a small city of about 50,000 people in central Croatia. Gudelj, 40, played for the Hokies in the early 90s and recommended Dupljak to Thompson when Thompson was in his early years as Tech’s coach at the turn of the century. Eventually, both of the former Tech stars came across a young Somen at the local tennis club and had nothing but good things to say about him to Thompson.

Sophomore Luka Somen (right) is just one example of how international student-athletes have played a huge role in the success of the Virginia Tech men’s tennis program.

“Dinko kept telling me again and again, ‘I’ve got a great guy for you in a few years,’” Thompson said. “They live in the same town and their families have been friends for a long time. I think Dinko and Luka’s father are contemporaries and they know each other really well. When Luka was growing up, Dinko would always practice with him. Dinko has continued to play (he was ranked the world’s No. 1 over-35 player as recently as a few years ago), so as Luka has gotten better, Dinko has used Luka as a sparring partner. They have a very good relationship.”

“Dinko is my neighbor in Croatia,” Somen confirmed. “He lives across the street, so he was kind of my mentor for most of my life. I spent a lot of time playing against him and he would always be telling me everything about playing at Virginia Tech – bad things, good things, and what I would have to look out for. I had some pretty good insight.”

Having Gudelj as a liaison proved to be advantageous to both Somen and Thompson. For coaches in all sports, convincing a recruit to choose their school over all the others is always a tough sell, but it can be even trickier to land foreigners.

“Sometimes you run into a situation where an international player doesn’t necessarily have preconceived notions of differences in schools, whether it be from the academic side of the university or from the tennis side,” Thompson explained. “They can certainly look up the rankings of the universities, but they don’t really have a good feeling for what it’s all about.”

Therefore, the playing field is leveled a little bit to where a proponent like Gudelj becomes extremely important.

“I didn’t have any idea how the concept [of playing tennis in college] in the U.S. worked,” Somen said. “But Dinko and Davor told me all about the school, about picking classes, about traveling, about the coaches, and about practicing and lifting. They let me know about all of the components of an athlete’s life.

“I was contacted by some other schools, but those two guys [Gudelj and Dupljak] and my parents were more focused on the school side of things and the coach. They weren’t as intense with saying, ‘OK, you’re going where the best tennis is.’ They wanted me to find a school I was comfortable with and a coach who was a fair and honest man. Those were the main points that I was looking for.”

Somen had a good balance of athletics and academics while growing up, making him the ideal fit for Thompson and the Hokies. According to Thompson, it’s not uncommon for the top Croatian tennis players – which included Somen, who consistently appeared at the top of the country’s junior rankings as a teenager – to abandon school altogether and go on the track toward becoming a professional. However, that was never an option for Somen.

“Staying in school had nothing to do with my goal of coming to an American college,” Somen said. “It was more the influence of my parents, who are both highly educated and who are both mechanical engineers. They both have master’s degrees. I come from a family where everybody is educated, so my tennis was supported by school the whole time. My mother was always telling me ‘School, school, school,’ and my father was always helping me out. When you’re playing tennis all the time as a teenager and traveling to Australia and Japan for tournaments, it’s pretty hard to keep up. The whole time, it was my family who kept me in a mindset that school was important.”

“Luka has been awesome both on and off the court for us,” Thompson said. “He’s a fierce competitor and he does great academically. He’s very respectful and he’s been brought up the right way. He’s the real deal.”

Somen, the 2009 ACC Freshman of the Year, is not the only Hokie who has found his way to Blacksburg because of the eye of an outsider. Current teammates Yoann Re and Sebastien Jacques (Quebec, Canada) were both acquaintances of former Hokie Francis Huot, and 2008 graduate Albert Larregola (Lleida, Spain) was discovered by a friend of former assistant coach Jimmy Borendame.

While it’s a challenge to collect such a wide range of athletes from around the globe, it’s another challenge altogether to get them to mesh together as a cohesive unit.

“It’s nice to get to know all of these guys who come from all over the world, but on the other hand, it’s also tricky to get used to,” Somen said. “We all have different mentalities and we all come from different countries. We’re all people, but we’re not all the same. Each of us has something different that needs to be recognized and respected. That’s something that you really learn as part of a tennis team. It’s a small team, so you really have to learn how to talk to everyone and respect everyone. It helps that tennis is one thing in each of our lives that is the same.”

“That’s a huge part of what we do – making sure we have good chemistry,” Thompson agreed. “I think it’s kind of fun for our guys. They learn about all kinds of different things. The conversation in our van is completely different than if it were five guys from the same state. They have a very big view of the world. Most of them have traveled around to different parts of the world playing in tournaments, and they all have different cultural experiences and views. It’s neat, but it’s definitely a challenge because you don’t want to put the wrong two together.”

Thompson cites the team’s chemistry as one of the main reasons why the Hokies are having success this season. Earlier this year, the team reached its highest national ranking in program history at No. 16. At press time, Tech stood at No. 23 following a rare, two-match losing streak, though it came at the hands of two top-30 teams in Duke and North Carolina.

Somen, who plays in the Hokies’ No. 2 spot in the lineup, will certainly be counted on to help Tech finish strongly this season. He will also play a big role in what should be an exciting 2011 campaign for the Hokies, who lose just one senior but return another sitting out this year with an injury.

But his biggest contribution may come years down the road when he’s a proud alumnus of Virginia Tech. Maybe he’s back in Croatia or on the pro tour somewhere, and he spots a young player who might have what it takes to succeed in faraway Blacksburg. Maybe he’ll see the same thing in that young man that Gudelj saw in him as a teenager. And if things go according to pattern, maybe he’ll steer that youngster in the right direction, with high praise of the Virginia Tech program. Sometimes word of mouth can go a long way.

Getting to know … sophomore Luka Somen

Born: 2/19/90

Hometown: Karlovac, Croatia

High School: Gimnazija Karlovac

Family: Parents Darko and Natasa

Roommates: Teammates Jonathan Pine and Zachary Pine

Major: Finance

Favorite courses: Concepts of Accounting and Concepts of Business Information Technology – “Those are the two classes I could really see myself using in the future.”

Car you drive: “I take the bus, but maybe I can get a car next year.”

Last movie you went to see: Shutter Island

Other sports you like: Basketball and soccer

Favorite place to eat: “My grandmother’s kitchen. That’s probably the best food I’ve ever had. She is the master. I gain a few pounds every time I go home.”

Hobbies you have: “My dad’s whole side of the family is really into music. He used to be really good at guitar and he used to play with a famous band in Croatia. My uncle plays the drums with one of the best musicians in Croatia.”

Have you followed in their footsteps?: “I play some guitar, but I’m not great at it. I know a few chords and a few songs and I know how to read the tabs. I listen to rock, pop and jazz, and I really like going to concerts.”

Last concert you saw: “I went to see U2 in Zagreb, Croatia, and I recently saw Maroon 5 here at Tech.”

Are those your favorite bands?: “Those are two of them, but I also like Queen, The Rolling Stones, Bon Jovi and Robbie Williams.”