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Monday, April 15, 2024

Getting into the swing of things

Meet UC Davis men’s tennis freshman and Barcelona-native, Nil Giraldez

When asking the UC Davis men’s tennis freshman Nil Giraldez about his style of play on the court, he’ll say he’s a fighter. He’ll fight for every point, fight for every ball, fight for every centimeter of advantage he can get over his opponents. Of course, every tennis player gives all they got to win the point, but there’s something different about this self-described fighter, who hails from Barcelona where his dad put a racquet in his hand at the age of four.

When the men’s tennis team hosted University of Nevada-Reno earlier this year, Giraldez appeared to have all but lost his first set when he was down 4-1. But he slowly inched his way back and took the first set from his opponent, 6-4, letting out the occasional celebrational “Vamos!” along the way. He proceeded to win his match in straight sets.

Although it’s not apparent from his on-court attitude, Giraldez is relatively quiet. He has only been in Davis for a month, as he started attending classes at the beginning of Winter Quarter. Even though his teammates say he’s struggling a little with English — it isn’t his mother tongue — it is never a struggle to understand what he’s saying.

In a sport where the upper echelons are largely dominated by non-U.S. players, tennis has declined in popularity in the U.S. It’s partly due to the failure of the United States to produce exciting players, apart from the Williams Sisters, since the days of the Andre Agassi-Pete Sampras rivalry.

Spanish players have been much more exciting to watch in recent history. Players like Carlos Moya, Tommy Robredo, Juan Carlos Ferrero, David Ferrer and of course, the King of Clay, Rafael Nadal.

Growing up, Giraldez idolized Nadal and his never-say-die attitude on the court but tries to model his play after another dominant tennis superstar, Novak Djokovic, who just won his 15th grand slam title.

While UC Davis is no stranger to international students — they made up 14 percent of the undergraduate population in the 2017-18 academic year — Davis is not exactly a destination for overseas athletes. What was one of the reasons Giraldez chose UC Davis?

“Having a team,” Giraldez said. “In Spain, when you go to college you can’t combine tennis and studies and you don’t have any kind of team. [Here] It’s like family, you know, that’s one of the reasons I came here.”

When Giraldez started playing tennis, he was pleased with his coordination on the court.  Giraldez recalled that he “played it quite well,” and as he got older he started playing better and training more.

In Spain, tennis is played on a clay court. The ball on a clay court, bounces higher and slower, fostering that trademark style of play seen commonly in Spanish tennis players. Slower points, longer rallies, generous use of topspin and overall defensive-minded play.

The drop shot — a trick shot where one player will fake their groundstroke and, with a deft touch, slice the ball so that it barely clears the net — is more of a weapon on clay where both players play further away from the baseline. It sounds like a good shot in theory but often backfires on players.

On hard courts, traditional for tennis in the U.S., this slower style of play is harder to pull off. Points are faster, groundstrokes more aggressive and players approach and attack the net more.

This style of play, while not a significant hindrance for Giraldez who has beaten six out of seven singles opponents so far this season, has required some adjustments.

“I have to adapt to this,” said Giraldez when the Aggies played UNR earlier in the season.

“I’m trying to make my serve a weapon,” he added, noting that the serve on clay courts is typically used as a tool to start controlling the point, rather than creating an opportunity to attack.

Just taking a look at his record thus far, it wouldn’t seem that there is a pressing need for him to change. His coach agrees.

“You’ve got 10 years of training behind you playing on clay, so you’re not jumping to doing hard court tennis, nor should he,” said men’s tennis Head Coach Eric Steidlmayer.

Sophomore Dariush Jalali said it’s been fun having another Spanish speaker on the team.

“Nil speaks Spanish, I know some Spanish. It’s fun to talk trash about the other teammates in Spanish and practice my bilingualism.”

Davis is a long way from Barcelona, Spain, and Thamma says Giraldez got a bit of culture shock.

“It’s totally different, but I’m okay,” Giraldez said.

The harsh Winter Quarter weather hasn’t made a good impression on Giraldez either, who like many when they first move to California, expected mild weather year round.

Above all, Steidlmayer noted that having an international player, like Giraldez or Tommy Lam — a Hong Kong native who played for the men’s tennis team and graduated from UC Davis last year — provides the team with a different worldview.

“It’s pretty cool for all our guys to get to know somebody from a different country and to have that kind of different perspective,” Steidlmayer said.

Everything kind of happened at once for Giraldez, being thrown into competition right away along with training and academics, but he is handling it all well, according to Steidlmayer.

“It’s pretty challenging taking a writing class and writing a five-page paper in English when Spanish is your first language,” Steidlmayer said.  

Being a long way from home and only finishing the visa process in December, Giraldez has seemed to have found his home on the court — his tenacity and international perspective are emblematic of the UC Davis culture with which he is now ingrained.

Written by: Bobby John — sports@theaggie.org


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