The UTEP tennis team is comprised of 11 players from seven different countries, making it a melting pot of cultures both on and off the court.
The Miners have players from Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, England, Italy, Mexico and the United State, giving them an extremely diverse roster. Yet instead of letting their differences divide them, head coach Ivan Fernandez’s squad has embraced its diversity while forming bonds as strong as any family unit.
“Vanessa (Valdez) and Erandi (Martinez) are the leaders,” Kathleen Percegona, a sophomore from Brazil said. “We can learn a lot from them, and it’s nice to be a part of this team with them.”
Valdez is humble with her leadership approach, crediting the whole team.
“Everyone has different personalities,” Valdez noted. “Everyone is a different asset for the team that makes us like a family.”
Percegona, who traveled more than 5,450 miles to venture to El Paso, is happy to be a part of team with a distinct international flavor.
“It’s really good to be here and to play with girls from all over the world,” Percegona said. “It’s really nice to be able to play and study (at UTEP). It’s been amazing for me. I feel really comfortable at UTEP because everyone is from somewhere (else), and we can learn about some other cultures and languages.”
Freshman Eve Daniels, who hails from England, feels the same way.
“Being part of a team with lots of different cultures is really fun,” Daniels stated. “It’s good for me because I’m learning some new Spanish words. Everyone gets along really well. We all help each other with different aspects of our day. It’s really nice, it’s like a family.”
Freshman Elena Dibattista, who came the farthest of anyone on the roster by venturing more than 6,200 miles from Italy, has already made strong connections with her teammates. She also has befriended members of the UTEP women’s basketball team, as by chance she was on the same flight as them during one of her five flights to arrive in El Paso.
Valdez is appreciative of the diversity the team presents.
“It’s pretty nice because you get to meet people from a lot of different cultures and traditions,” Valdez said. “Everyone gets to know each other more and about different traditions.”
Fernandez and assistant coach Joanna Furdyna do a good job working to develop strong relationships on the squad, on and off the court.
“The coaches really help with helping the team to support each other through the matches,” Daniels said. “They make sure we are doing team-bonding exercises, and that we support each other.”
There are a variety of ways the staff accomplishes this, as Valdez describes.
“We try to do a lot of activities outside of playing tennis and practices,” Valdez said. “Sometimes we have dinners or go to entertainment places. Every week we have a meeting, and everyone gets to talk about how they feel. If we had a match the week before, we get to talk about it. We talk about how we felt, things we need to improve.”
As unique of a dynamic there is to the Miners’ make-up as a squad, there’s also something special about being a team while playing an individual sport. But much like the meshing of personalities to become a family, UTEP done the same when figuring out how to build comradery on the court.
“Everyone is trying to hold each other accountable when we play,” Valdez said. “You are on the court by yourself, but you are also playing for your teammates. You turn around and see your teammates playing, and you know that you need to get more strength if you are in a difficult situation. You have to try to put (forward) your best in every match.”
That is a sentiment that is echoed by Percegona.
“Team chemistry is really important,” Percegona said. “We need to be able to take and give energy to each other. It’s really important to have trust in each other in order to play our best.”
Another area that everyone is agreement in is about what type of season UTEP is hoping to have this spring. The Miners got off to a good start to the year by blitzing Western New Mexico, 7-0, on Jan. 25, and aspire to build on that this weekend and beyond.
“We want to have a winning record,” Valdez says of team goals. “We also want to do very well in conference and advance as many rounds as we can (at the conference tournament).”
Percegona is optimistic as well.
“I think we can do amazing things together,” Percegona said. “I hope we can finish the year with good results with everyone really happy and satisfied.”