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Tennis standout Vloedgraven a study in all-around excellence

Synopsis: After a remarkable fall season that featured an ITA regional singles crown, junior tennis player Sven Vloedgraven is on the cusp of becoming one of the nation's elite tennis talents. His journey to Binghamton, academic success and camaraderie with his Bearcat teammates are explored in this feature.

By John Hartrick, Associate AD-Communications

Junior men's tennis player Sven Vloedgraven has achieved things no other BU tennis player has: A number one regional ranking and singles title at the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) Northeast Regional tournament. But his individual accomplishments are only part of the story. Vloedgraven, born and raised in Holland, has made the most of his college experience, and everything he touches at Binghamton turns to gold.

Vloedgraven grew up in Lochem, a town of approximately 15,000 located an hour and a half east of Amsterdam. He played tennis and soccer, his country's national sport, as a youngster. By age 12 however, he had quit soccer and was concentrating solely on tennis. When he was approaching high school graduation, Vloedgraven decided he wanted to play college tennis in the United States. Most European colleges don't have sports teams so the possibility of combining an academic degree with playing tennis was very appealing to him.

"I didn't know anything about Binghamton but after doing some research, I found out that the school was very good and that it had a good athletic program," Vloedgraven said. "I had no idea what it was going to be like or if I was going to stay for all four years. But now I wish I could stay longer than just four years."

Head coach Adam Cohen was just finishing his first year as BU's head coach in 2006-07 when he was turned on to Vloedgraven by a former college player and friend.

Leaving home and going to college in another country wasn't difficult for Vloedgraven, who has adapted to the school, the culture and the sport with unparalleled ease.

While his parents were supportive of his decision to come to Binghamton, they didn't fully understand how the university system and college tennis are structured.

"When I won the ITA Regional in the fall, my parents didn't really know what I had won or how big the region is," Vloedgraven said. " The Northeast Region is a lot bigger than Holland, so when we talk about a region in Holland, it is similar to talking about the Binghamton region, or Broome County."

What his parents didn't yet realize was that their son had earned the title of being the top-rated player in a region that comprises more than 400 players.

As for Vloedgraven's transition, his superb tennis and academic credentials run side-by-side. He carries a 3.88 grade-point average in the School of Management and made the Dean's List both semesters in his junior year. The school work has come easily to him.

"I was in a bilingual program in high school so some of my classes were taught in English," Vloedgraven said. "The books, lectures and exams were in English. This made going to school in the United States a lot easier."

His adjustment to college tennis was more difficult.

"I had never played on hard courts before so it took me a few weeks to get used to it," he said. "I also had to practice a lot more than I was used to back home and during my first few weeks in Binghamton I remember it was very hot and humid - much more than I was used to."

Someone stating that Binghamton was hotter than what they were used to is rare indeed, but most things about Vloedgraven are rare. Cohen was impressed from day 1 with his new recruit.

"Sven is a very likeable person," Cohen said. "He has always had a good attitude at practice and has competed hard. His teammates respect him and he has shown them that hard work pays off."

Vloedgraven's determination quickly paid dividends for himself and the Bearcats. In his first semester, he was positioned at No. 6 singles but by the end of the spring he had worked his way all the way up to the No. 2 spot. Vloedgraven then showed his mettle at the America East Championship, going undefeated in three matches and rallying for a pivotal three-set singles win against UMBC in BU's 4-3 championship win.

Last season, he played both first and second singles and guided the Bearcats to their second straight conference title. He was named America East Player of the Year and earned a regional ranking of No. 15.

The program's recent success is built however, on a team approach and the Bearcats have a camaraderie that is born of a unique geography. Binghamton's 2009-10 roster consists of 11 players - all from different countries. Vloedgraven counts up to 10 different languages spoken on the courts, which makes for entertaining exchanges.

"We definitely have a lot of different cultures," he said. "I think that's a great thing and I haven't seen it on any other college team - tennis or any other sport. We get to know people from five different continents in the world. The number of languages spoken on the courts depends on how everybody is playing. When we are all playing well, it's just English. But when some guys are not playing their greatest tennis … you can hear more languages! Sometimes we curse in someone else's language or we imitate each other's accents. So we are always having a lot of fun."

America East opponents aren't having as much fun. The Bearcats have a stranglehold on the title with five crowns in the last seven years including back-to-back with Vloedgraven in the lineup. Cohen pinpoints his star player's skills.

"Sven is difficult to play because he doesn't give away many free points. He has a high shot tolerance (he can stay in long rallies without really getting nervous or pressured). He can also play well against players who like to come forward and attack as it gives him a target."

Vloedgraven offers his own assessment of the secret of his success.

"I just try hard in practice and never give up in matches," he said. "I always got to a lot of balls so that's what makes me hard to beat, but I think this semester, and especially during the regional championship, I hit better balls with more pressure and the same consistency as before. I am always having a lot of fun when I play tennis. I think that's why I have kept improving."

On the horizon for Vloedgraven is a national singles ranking and possible NCAA singles berth. But for him, individual success takes a backseat to his team's success. Cohen has lined up lofty goals for his program (national team ranking, third straight conference title) and an opportunistic spring schedule gives them a chance.

But win or lose, Vloedgraven is enjoying his collegiate experience at Binghamton.

"I like the school a lot," he said. "I could not ask for better teammates. We are all good friends, respect each other and cheer for each other in matches. For players outside the U.S., it's great that a school provides you with tennis courts, a coach, a locker room, tennis balls and practice every day. American players are used to that but we all understand how nice it is that the school gives us these opportunities. The whole team aspect of tennis at school is great and it makes it much more fun. The combination of a good quality education and tennis at a high level with a lot of fun has made BU a great experience for me."

Vloedgraven and the Bearcats take the courts on January 23 to begin the spring season and their quest for another America East title and NCAA berth.

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