UTA is among the country’s most diverse universities. This holds true for the sports that UTA offers. One of the most diverse programs is tennis, with most of the men’s roster coming from different parts of the world.
The men’s tennis program has only one American-born player in senior Alejandro Hayen. The rest of the team is composed of players from different continents.
Having players from different parts of the world on a team has become the norm, head coach Diego Benitez said.
He said America has a great system within the NCAA that gives players an opportunity to play at a high caliber level of tennis while obtaining a degree.
That was the case for freshman Daichi Akiyoshi. In his first season, Akiyoshi went 9-4 in singles matches and had a 6-5 doubles record before the season was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Akiyoshi hails from Hiroshima, Japan, and experienced a culture shift when he came to America.
He said it was difficult to adjust to life in America due to the language barrier, but he became more open-minded and did things to fit into the culture.
“They tried to understand my culture and asked me some Japanese and what was going on in Japan,” Akiyoshi said. “In my opinion, we have different cultures, but we are human, so we each have our own character.”
Akiyoshi said he’s tried different ways to connect with the team, whether it’s watching television or conversing with them. He said he wants to understand his teammates’ characteristics, and they try to understand his culture.
Benitez said building relationships within the program starts with speaking English, which the coaching staff emphasizes.
“We try as much as we can to maintain that rule and that norm,” he said. “So everyone knows and feels included in the topic that we are speaking.”
One player who is used to the American culture is Hayen, having hailed from San Antonio, Texas.
Although Hayen was born in the U.S., he grew up around Spanish speakers most of his life. He credits the culture he was born into when it comes to his communication skills with his Spanish-speaking teammates.
Hayen has found success in all parts of his tennis career, being named an All-American in singles and doubles and winning a national championship in doubles in 2018 during his time at Tyler Junior College.
Prior to the pandemic, Hayen finished the 2020 season 13-7 in doubles, including a 12-5 record with freshman Alan Sau Franco.
Hayen said both of them being able to speak Spanish has helped with communication and making sure that they are on the same page.
Sau Franco also has roots in America, with parts of his family living in Chicago. Coming from Mexico, Sau Franco said he enjoys Texas because of how much he relates to the environment and how it feels like home.
Although Sau Franco’s season was cut short last year and his time with Hayen was limited, their relationship is still growing.
“[Alejandro] is a great captain and he’s also a great friend,” Sau Franco said. “He is a really good leader, he’s always trying to push everyone on the team.”
When asked how UTA brings in players from across the country to play in America, Benitez said it’s all about the opportunities that present themselves and tireless .
“It could be Christmas time, and you heard that a player had a great result,” Benitez said. “You want to make sure you communicate with them and let them know about the opportunity to come and play for UTA.”
Benitez is proud of co-captains Hayen and junior Eduard Simo for how they have led the team.
“I cannot stop thinking of [Eduard] and Alejandro,” Benitez said. “I think [Alejandro] and [Eduard] have really gone a long way in leading the team in their roles, so I’m extremely proud for them.”
As one of the team’s freshmen, Akiyoshi stays prepared and awaits his moment to make an impact whenever he is called upon.
He said he doesn’t know when his time will come again, but he continues to stay prepared and focused so he can seize the moment when it arrives.
Even with different ethnicities and cultures, Benitez’s main goal is inclusion.
“At the end of the day, we make sure we do a little part to get everyone included and feel welcome in every activity that we do,” Benitez said.