Five different countries other than the United States will be represented by Penn State’s men’s tennis team when it opens its season in a week at the Princeton Invitational.
With Ramy Labna (Qatar), Tomas Hanzlik (Czech Republic), Guanhua Chen (China), Chris Young (Australia) and Roman Trkulja (Canada), the team has no shortage of diversity.
Head coach Jeff Zinn said he has a philosophy to have a mix between international and American players on his roster. Zinn said he wants to create the best learning experience possible for the student athletes.
“I’ve always been a big believer in international players being on the team because it just shows so much diversity,” Zinn said. “How many chances is a young man going to [have to] meet a player, or just a person, from Qatar and potentially go over and visit him on holidays or just to learn more about that culture?”
Labna, who was born in Egypt before moving to Qatar at an early age, initially came to Penn State because of his architectural engineering major and the school’s proximity to Canada, where he has family.
He said his teammates are interested in his international background, and it is brought up frequently.
“My teammates always ask about Qatar,” Labna said. “I tell them about it. They always want to see pictures, and I Skype them a few times when I am back home.”
Labna was injured in his first year and didn’t make the team, but once Zinn came to Penn State in 2011, the sophomore contacted the coach for a try out and made the team.
While Labna wasn’t a traditional international prospect, Zinn said his staff has a way of evaluating talent all over the world during recruiting. He said he uses the world rankings for junior tennis players and research of the player’s past to see if the recruits have the experience he’s looking for at a young age.
“You want to try to get experienced tennis players on your team,” Zinn said. “The more matches they’ve played usually translates to doing better in college.”
Assistant coach Chris Cagle said if the team establishes a relationship with an international recruit in his homeland and the team feels it could benefit from the prospect, then the coaches would take the next step and travel overseas.
“[We would] get to talk to them face-to-face, tell them about what a great university Penn State is,” Cagle said, “and what our goals are for our program and see if those goals match what they are looking for, as well.”
Cagle says sometimes there is a difference, aside from the distance, in the recruiting process for international players and American juniors.
“With U.S. juniors, they have more preconceived notions on what the school is like based off of some of their perceptions on the athletic department or academics,” Cagle said. “Where internationals tend to be a little more open-minded.”
When it comes down to preferences between international recruits and U.S. prospects, Cagle said there is none.
“We are just searching for the best kids that are going to fit our program,” Cagle said. “If an international player can really add to our team, that’s something that we look for with their playing level…their philosophies matching with our philosophies.”