By Brett Weisband
Edited by David Purtell
EDS NOTE: Head coach Arlo Elkins died April 1 at age 62, several months after this story ran. He stepped down that February because of health reasons.
Spanish. Croatian. Bulgarian. Russian. They all mix with the thwack of tennis balls and the squeaking of sneakers at USC's tennis courts on Blossom Street.
"We have our own English," says Dijana Stojic, a senior from Makarska, Croatia, one of eight international players on the USC women's tennis team.
While international players populate the rosters of other Southeastern Conference women's tennis teams, USC's 10-member squad stands out. Its eight foreign players come from six countries outside the United States.
Because their homes are scattered all over the world, team members have become as tightly woven as the strings on a tennis racket. For the players, the team and the tennis court have become a home away from home.
"I'm very thankful to have the team because they are like family," says Stojic, an All-SEC second team performer last year.
Despite the harmony on USC's courts, controversy has grown over the influx of international players into American collegiate tennis. The issue has garnered attention overseas, as a recent BBC report highlighted the prevalence of international players and raised concerns of coaches around the nation.
Last year, the United States Tennis Association was prompted to release an online Frequently Asked Questions packet to address concerns.
International players have also become an irritant, especially for junior tennis players ¬– and their parents ¬– looking for college scholarships. The USTA acknowledged it as "an emotionally charged and often divisive topic."
International players occupy 19 percent of women's tennis roster spots in all NCAA divisions, according to the USTA. That rises to just under 50 percent in Division I.
In the SEC, it's 36 percent, or 37 of 104 spots, according to a check of SEC schools' websites. Conference spokeswoman Tammy Wilson says the SEC does not track the number of international athletes in any of its sports.
"Tennis is becoming more global," says Graham Cox, deputy executive director of the South Carolina USTA. "And if coaches have opportunities [to recruit] worldwide, they'll take them,"
Head coach Arlo Elkins, in his 29th season as coach, says he first focuses on recruiting American players. But they tend to come from higher-income backgrounds, he says, and "if they have a choice between Duke, Stanford, Vanderbilt and USC, they generally choose the other ones."
So, Elkins says, he then looks abroad.
In 2009-10, the team had two American and seven international players. Last year, there were no Americans on the team. In the four preceding years, USC had three or four international players.
USC's international players have to adjust to being a team. In their home countries, amateur tennis is an individual game.
"It's completely different when you're in college tennis and when you're individual because you work on your own," says Katerina Popova, who is from Moscow. "You just think about yourself; it's kind of selfish,"
But at USC, she says, "You work more like a team sport, supporting each other, cheer for others."
Adriana Pereira, a junior from Asuncion, Paraguay, says she still isn't used to a few things about the United States.
"At home, we have dinner so late, around 9. When I got here, everyone was having dinner at 6:30, 7, and I'm like, ‘Well, that is not dinner time for me,'" she says with a laugh.
Initially, Pereira, who travels over 4,000 miles home for winter and summer breaks, was worried about coming to a country where she knew no one. She says the team's family atmosphere put her at ease.
The players say they occasionally feel homesick but that having teammates in the same situation helps them get through it.
"When someone misses home, so we're just like, ‘Hey, let's go and hang out,' just talk or watch movies," Popova said.
Katarina Petrovic, USC's associate head coach, says she wishes the team could fill its roster with more Americans. The former Gamecocks player, a native of Serbia, uses her European connections to fill out USC's roster with international talent.
"You have to compete, so we have to outsource recruiting," she says.
Cox says top S.C. tennis players have ways to show what they can do against tougher competition.
The S.C. USTA encourages schools to host a "Campus Showdown," where S.C. colleges and universities hold open competition for players to test their mettle against college athletes. Sanctioned tournaments throughout the state also allow athletes to play against top competition in their own age group, he says.