Khlif, Montsi give perspectives on international tennis

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The Daily Illini File Photo

Illinois’ Noe Khlif returns the ball during the match against Duke at Atkins Tennis Center on Feb. 1. The University has two international players: senior Noe Khlif, from France, and sophomore Siphosothando Montsi, from South Africa.

By Jackson Janes and Luca Ripani, Contributing Writers

 The top 10-ranked NCAA Division I tennis programs currently average four international players on their rosters, with the average team size at 11, according to the NCAA.

Although international players find greater difficulty with recruitment, as they have less exposure to NCAA coaches at tournaments and showcases, universities welcome foreign athletes to increase the diversity and versatility of programs.

The University has two players from outside of the United States: senior Noe Khlif, from Marseille, France, and sophomore Siphosothando Montsi, who’s from East London, South Africa.

Noe Khlif

Khlif is a senior from a small town in France, roughly 15 miles outside of Marseille. After starting tennis at the age of four, Khlif knew it was the sport for him. This passion flourished into a more serious time commitment as Khlif began traveling to practices and tournaments by the time he was 11 years old.

Khlif spent one year studying at a French university, as there’s difficulty in finding good programs after high school where you can still play tennis against high-level competition. Additionally, talented teammates and world-class coaches and facilities are only available at certain colleges, something which influenced Khlif’s decision to come to the United States.

Khlif spent a lot of time researching colleges across the globe for a program that would best suit his academic and athletic talents. After receiving a phone call from the Illinois head coach Brad Dancer, Khlif made an official visit and fell in love with the campus.

“I was looking at different universities, and one day Brad (Dancer) called me, and I visited here, and I really liked it,” Khlif said. “I liked the culture and the team, literally everything here, so I committed right away. This is the only school I visited.”

The differences between tennis in the United States and France are drastic, Khlif said. France takes a more individualized approach to practice, while the U.S. focuses on working together and practicing as a team to develop communication skills, forcing everyone to push each other to become better players. Khlif also acknowledged the abundance of facilities in the United States compared to in his home country.

“The facilities in the United States are better, too. There are maybe two or three facilities like this in France,” Khlif said. “Here, every university has nice facilities indoors and outdoors, so it’s really nice.”

Although Khlif said adapting to tennis in the United States took some time, adjusting to being away from his family was quite easy, as he spent a lot of time separated from his parents and siblings while playing with the French Tennis Federation. Despite living thousands of miles from his family, he’s able to go back for two to three weeks over the holidays and during summer vacation. Khlif admits the most difficult part is only being able to go home for a few weeks between the months of September and May.

While his family has never been able to see him play as an Illini, they came before his freshman year to help him get settled in. He hopes they will be able to come next year and see him play in a few matches.

This is Khlif’s fourth year on the team, but he aims to take a redshirt-year to focus on healing his wrist. While he’s unable to contribute to his team’s goal of winning the Big Ten Tournament and making a run in the NCAA Championships this season, he has faith in his teammates.

“I think we have a very solid team this year, and I think if some of the guys can step up, we can have a really great year here,” Khlif said.

Siphosothando Montsi

Montsi is a sophomore from East London, South Africa. Montsi began playing tennis at 9 years old because of a program in his community that encouraged him to play competitively.

Montsi came to the United States to play tennis after being recruited by head coach Dancer, who saw him play in several international matches. He chose to come to Illinois, because he saw the potential for balancing academic and athletic success.

“It was a no-brainer for me, coming to the (United) States. I’m getting the best of academics and the best of tennis,” Montsi said.

Monsti also said South African tennis facilities pale in comparison to the ones available at Illinois, but Montsi said the biggest difference between tennis in South Africa and the U.S. is the increased focus that is given to the sport in America.

“A big difference is that you get a lot more people watching you here,” Montsi said. “People are a lot more engaged because they know the sport, whereas back home it was only, maybe, the last few years when I started doing really well when I’d have people watching me … and it’s a little bit better here honestly.”

Like his teammate Khlif, Montsi is happy at Illinois; however, he sometimes gets melancholy about his family and friends across the Atlantic Ocean. Although he misses them, Montsi uses his family as motivation to continue to succeed.

“(My parents and my little brother) were really happy,” Montsi said. “They obviously missed me a lot, but they’re happy for me.” Montsi says he hasn’t gone home in over a year, but plans to over winter break.

Even though Montsi has seen much success in the U.S. as a tennis player, the sport isn’t as popular in South Africa.

“Tennis is not a big sport back in South Africa. Tennis is a lot bigger here,” Montsi said. “The main sports back home are soccer, cricket, rugby; but here, (tennis) is a lot more popular.”

Though tennis was not always a definite athletic path for Montsi, as he considered playing other sports when he was younger, but tennis was different for Montsi and drew him in.

“Just because it was different. I played all those sports, I’ve always been a sporty guy … I wanted to play tennis because it was just different, I was doing something different than all my friends and I started doing well, so I went with it.”

Montsi said the program at Illinois has helped him find a balance between improving in tennis and enjoying his time as a college student. As an international student, Montsi sometimes feels the pressure to not only represent Illinois as a school, but his entire country. However, Monsti has gotten used to the pressure.

“But (the pressure is) something I’ve gotten used to, Montsi said. “But there’s always that pressure. But it’s something I don’t really think about. Pressure’s never really been a problem for me.”

Even though he’s only a sophomore, Montsi has lofty goals for this season.

“My goal for this season is just to contribute as much as I can to the team,” Montsi said. “Win as many matches as possible, get good wins against good schools. What’s always been a goal for me is to win the Big Ten Conference and get into the (NCAA tournament).”

Montsi’s status as an international player is becoming more and more popular. His best friend from home plays at Florida State, and another friend plays at Texas Christian University, who the Illini will face on March 14, 2020.

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