International players fuel Firebirds’ tennis success
The rosters for Carthage’s varsity tennis teams read like a world atlas.
Alongside student-athletes from familiar Midwestern states, you’ll find those from South America, Asia, and other parts of our own continent. This past spring, the men’s and women’s teams had a combined eight players from other countries.
To put that in perspective, almost one-fifth of the College’s entire international undergraduate population competed in tennis. And they played an integral role for the Firebirds.
This feature story first appeared in the Summer 2023 issue of The Carthaginian magazine.
As conference champion, men’s tennis made the NCAA Division III tournament as a team for the first time since 2016. Carthage advanced to the second round there, coming within one victory of matching the program’s deepest postseason run.
“We had a fantastic year,” head coach Brady Lindsley ’95 reflected. “It was a complete team effort, but, without the three international student-athletes, our success would not have been possible.”
That’s no exaggeration. By the end of the season, Yanozie “Zizi” Amadike ’23 of Canada and Brazilians Francisco Silveira ’26 and Luca Okino ’26 had a say in five of the nine contested matches.
Although the Carthage women fell short of the national tourney, they engineered a resurgence. Led by Xingchen Liu ’26 of China with regular contributions from Giovanna Mendes ’25 and Luana da Silva ’25 of Brazil, the team won 11 dual meets — the most since 2017-18. Assistant coach Julia Valls I Lope of Spain adds to the international contingent.
As one of the few in D-III to lead both tennis programs full time, Coach Lindsley cleared 800 combined wins during the memorable season. In April, the CCIW named him Men’s Coach of the Year for the 10th time — his 13th conference award overall.
A larger pool
Coach Lindsley has ramped up recruiting of international students in recent years. Why? Largely out of necessity.
According to the most recent participation figures from the National Federation of State High School Associations, tennis is only the ninth-most popular sport for boys and seventh for girls in the United States. With more than 325 D-III tennis programs scouring the nation for talent, coaches are looking elsewhere to gain a competitive edge.
Simply put, it’s a bigger deal in other parts of the world.
“It’s definitely different,” said Xingchen, who started playing competitively around age 15 or 16. “(In China) we don’t have as many options as here, and we have more people…so people can choose to go pro or play in college, but you have to be very good to compete in college there.”
She’s from Hefei, a city of about 9 million. A trainer recommended Carthage to her, and, between the comfortably small campus, the Lake Michigan backdrop, and the liberal arts focus, Xingchen was sold. Majoring in public relations as well as exercise and sport science, she intends to pursue a career in sports management or sports journalism.
Immediately as a freshman, Xingchen stepped into the Firebirds’ No. 1 slot, going 20-3 overall in singles (undefeated in College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin matches) and adding 17 doubles victories — mostly in the top pairing with Giana Apostoli ’23. Coaches voted her the conference’s best newcomer and overall player for 2022-23.
Zizi, her counterpart as No. 1 on the Carthage men’s squad, wrote a rousing final chapter in his Carthage career. The steady senior from Calgary, Alberta, passed the 100-win milestone.
Some contributions are harder to quantify. The visitors from abroad have made those, too.
“Their impact as team leaders has been just as influential on the success of our program,” says Coach Lindsley.
He doesn’t need to travel overseas to give the Carthage elevator pitch in these families’ living rooms. Really, he just has to keep an eye on his inbox. Recruiting services act as matchmakers for international student-athletes and U.S. colleges.
Giovanna paid one such company to make a highlight video and distribute it to NCAA coaches. Unsolicited messages often go unread, but Coach Lindsley opened that one and saw a promising student-athlete who could thrive here.
“I fell in love with the campus, and Carthage was just a perfect fit for me,” said Giovanna, a rising junior from Mogi das Cruzes, the birthplace of Brazil’s soccer star Neymar. The College combined the chance “to continue to play the sport that I love with an outstanding academic program.”
Majoring in finance and economics, she’s still weighing career options. Graduate school remains a strong possibility, but Giovanna also envisions returning home to work in financial advising while brainstorming business ideas.
In all, there are six Brazilians on the Firebirds’ tennis teams — an odd coincidence, considering most didn’t know one another until their paths converged in Kenosha. Giovanna and Francisco are an exception, having met back home.
A year ahead of her friend, Giovanna was already getting comfortable here when Francisco’s college search got going. He picked her brain “about the academics and the everyday life of a student-athlete at Carthage,” and a strong financial aid package sealed the deal.
Like many international students, Francisco’s experiences in America before college consisted of brief stays — one for a family vacation, another on a tennis trip. A welcoming atmosphere at Carthage eased the transition.
“I felt like I was at home,” Francisco said. “People treated me well, and I created a strong bond with the tennis team.”
The two-time national under-18 singles champion from Niterói, Brazil, carried his strong play into college. Francisco earned recognition as CCIW First- Year Student-Athlete of the Year, locking down the Firebirds’ second singles spot and teaming with Cooper Ferruzzi ’24 at No. 2 doubles.
Here’s a compelling data point: Except for Zizi, who graduated in May with a degree in psychology, all of the international players have multiple years of eligibility left. And Coach Lindsley has tentative commitments from five more to enter this fall.
Add the other returning Firebirds to the equation, and it’s clear we can expect more passport stamps on this epic journey.