1500 miles to Omaha

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By Nate Tenopir, Sports Editor

 

In Hermosillo, Mexico it’s normally 110 degrees every day of summer.  Some of the hottest days can get up to 120.

Carlos Ramos Salazar endured those long, hot days driving through the city, making deliveries for his mother’s flower shop.  Endured is probably the best way to describe it.

In a city of 1 million, finding the right address is often an adventure.  Add to that spending all day on the road, and it can be downright stifling.

It’s hot, your skin sticks to the seat and traffic can be frustrating.  But maybe it teaches you that there has to be something better.

For Salazar, better was between the lines of a tennis court.  In a country where most are seemingly born with a soccer ball, and the rest play baseball, Salazar wasn’t exactly chasing the Mexican dream.

“I have been on the other side of the fence,” Salazar says.  “I admired guys that were older than me and I knew they were only gonna be there for the summer, and then they were gonna go back to school in the U.S.”

Long before he was spending his summers carting flowers around to the homes and businesses of big city Mexico, Salazar fell in love with the sport of tennis.  At a private club he played racquetball with his father.

But in Mexico only the older generation plays tennis.  Eventually Salazar saw kids from the club bypassing the racquetball courts for a different game.

It didn’t take very long and Salazar was hooked.  Unfortunately he chose a path filled with obstacles.

In Mexico there are no high school tennis programs.  Players train at a club, public or private, and spend their weekends traveling the countryside to participate in tournaments.

They learn the game through the tennis professionals at the club, or they hire their own.  They pay for their rackets and  travel through sponsorships.

Like the U.S., Mexico is a collection of what many Americans might consider states.  In most cases, if you play a sport other than soccer or baseball, the state has to step in to create the opportunity.

There are select teams for each sport and the state identifies athletes to spend money on.  At age 13 Salazar hired a private coach independent of the club.

Fortunately his family includes a father who is an attorney and can afford such expenses.  But the funds available to spend weekends on the road, to pay for hotel stays and to cover entry fees would be too much on almost any budget.

Two to three weekends a month, Salazar’s father spent his free time shuttling him and his brother to tournaments around Mexico, and across the border in the United States.  Though Salazar and his family spent all that time to help him realize his passion, the future was never guaranteed.

It’s one thing to embrace a sport outside of the norm.  It’s something altogether different to become good at it.

He never won any tournaments, but Salazar says he could usually break into the round of 16 or make the quarterfinals.  He began to believe.

Outside of regional tournaments, Mexico holds three major national tournaments and one team tournament.  As an unknown player from Hermosillo, Salazar had to earn his way in.

More than 200 players attempt to earn one of the 64 spots in the national tournaments.  Eventually, Salazar played well enough that his ranking gave him an automatic qualifier.

But when he was just starting out, Salazar had to win four to five matches just to make the field.  And he did.

He was good.  It was time to start thinking about following the example of the boys he saw go off to college in the United States.

“I knew that could happen since I was young because I had older friends who were 18 when I was 12 and I knew they were coming to the U.S. to play,” Salazar says.  “I heard stuff since I was young and I didn’t know if I was gonna make it or not.  Then as soon as I grew older, maybe 15, 16, I thought that if I kept it up and kept practicing and playing I could eventually make it.”

To get to the college in America some players hire an agency to search through the hundreds of tennis programs to find them a spot.  Those who had been there and done that told him he could do it on his own, and again he believed.

But what were the chances Salazar would end up at the University of Nebraska Omaha?

“I’d say honestly, slim to none,” Salazar’s current college coach Mike Saniuk says.  “Most international students aren’t gonna know Omaha, let alone Nebraska.”

The odds might have been long.  But if you haven’t already figured it out, Salazar isn’t the type to give up without a fight.

To find his place in an American college Salazar says he sent at least 100 emails over two months to tennis programs across the country.  Out of those 100, maybe 30 responded.

Most were community colleges, but Division I schools like Indiana and South Dakota State gave him a look as well.  First Salazar landed in Springfield, Mo. at Drury University.

Despite the time and effort he had put into realizing his dream, Salazar wasn’t completely immune from the difficulties of college life.  He got homesick.

Salazar was in a new place living on his own and he stays he started to develop some bad habits academically and athletically.  In addition, his coach at Drury left and the new guy brought in a bunch of his own players.

Staying in Springfield meant losing a scholarship and paying his way through the rest of college.  Salazar seriously considered giving it all up and going back home.  

It may not have felt like it, but it was perfect timing.  If luck is when preparation meets opportunity, then Salazar had fulfilled the preparation part of the equation.  UNO fulfilled the other.

Salazar still wanted to play, and as luck would have it, he had a friend at the University of Sioux Falls.  Though the college was dropping its men’s tennis program his friend knew of a coach in Omaha that needed players.

Mike Saniuk had been the head of UNO’s women’s tennis program and would become head of the men’s program when it began in 2011.  At the time Saniuk was already recruiting a player out of Mexico.

But the coach at Sioux Falls told Saniuk that Salazar was a better pick, a nicer kid and a better tennis player.

“It tells you a lot about his character,” Saniuk says about Salazar’s journey to get to Omaha.  “That fight is hugely shown on the court as well, strapping and pulling his way through a match.”

When a player transfers from one school to another, NCAA rules restrict that player to a redshirt or to the bench for a season.  However, there is one stipulation that says if a player is transferring to a school in reclassification, there is no waiting period.

In March 2011, UNO announced its intentions to move to The Summit League and Division I competition.  For Salazar, the table had been set to give it another try.

And he might have been the perfect example to bring into a brand new program.

“When we go on the road and we’re eating lunch he’s one of the first to say thank you even though NCAA rules say we have to feed our athletes,” Saniuk says.  “He shows a lot of it through his play.  For the most part he’s incredibly happy out on the court and he doesn’t take it for granted.”

At times Salazar even causes Saniuk to take a step back and look at things from a different perspective.  Saniuk admits that even after a win he can nitpick and point out to his players the elements of their game that need to improve.

Oftentimes Salazar will speak up and point out the things that his teammates have been working on in practice, and how they’ve gotten better.

“He’s quick to point out the success of others,” Saniuk says.  “He’s not always looking at stuff that we did wrong but looking at, all right we did this right, how do we move forward with it?”

Saniuk also relies on Salazar as an example of playing big time tennis.  Differences in the game between Mexico and the U.S. make Salazar one of the few on Saniuk’s squad that has played competitive junior tournaments.

Saniuk says a seasoned player shows the team the fight over flight mentality.  Salazar has been in big situations, big matches and he’s not going to run away.

There’s that and all the work Salazar has to put in to see his family and friends.

“I don’t know how many guys he talks to on the team about the whole process just for him to get back home,” Saniuk says.  “How long it takes, how many flights he has, how many hours spent in an airplane.  It is a very fascinating bit of information that most people have no clue about.”

When his career at UNO is complete Salazar says he’s likely to keep playing tennis, but he hasn’t given much thought to going pro.  In his immediate future he sees himself getting his master’s degree while serving as a graduate assistant at UNO or any school that will accept him.

But he also understands his role as someone who can provide an example to his community at home.  When Salazar is back in Hermosillo, now he’s one of the players all the little boys line up to get a glimpse of.

“I definitely think it’s an inspiration,” Salazar says.  “Once you go back in the summers and play tennis at the old courts, kids are watching you on the side fence, and they want to be like you when they’re growing up.”

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