April is crunch time for college tennis teams, and for the top player on Duke’s men’s team, redshirt junior Nicolás Álvarez, to step away for a week during the cruelest month, it had to be for something important.
He had to win a match for his country.
When healthy, Álvarez isn’t just one of the top players in college tennis; he’s one of the best tennis players from his native Peru, full stop. When his homeland competes in the international Davis Cup, he kind of has to play. “There’s not a vast array of players they can choose,” Álvarez says matter-of-factly, after his April victory in Metepec, Mexico, pushed his career Davis Cup record to an unblemished 5-0.
For coach Ramsey Smith, Álvarez is the first player he’s coached at Duke who has competed in the Davis Cup while in college. “It’s tricky because he’s a part of this team, and he’s on scholarship, and he’s our best player,” says Smith. “But then he also has this unique opportunity to represent his country, which is bigger than Duke.”
The Davis Cup is unlike anything in tennis. It’s wildly partisan, played either in front of raucous supporters or hostile opposing fans. And unlike NCAA team tennis, only one match happens at a time. Which means, for players, all eyes are on you. “The entire country’s watching,” Álvarez says. “Well, maybe not the entire country…but a bunch of people are.”
In the fall of 2016, Álvarez faced off against his Venezuelan opponent in the deciding match. Playing in front of his friends and family in his hometown of Lima—ten miles from his house, at “a club I’m familiar with, I’d drive through there on the weekends,” he says—could have overwhelmed the youngest player on Peru’s team. Not to mention being forced to return on a second day after darkness suspended the match with Álvarez just three games from victory.
But he came through, notching the win to secure Peru’s promotion to a higher level of the competition. Which means his coach’s assessment doesn’t seem like hyperbole. “He’s a national hero there,” Smith says.
Álvarez’s origin story starts at age four, with him picking up a racket at the club where his parents were members. Belonging to a club, he explains, is the only way to learn the sport in Peru; no public courts dot the country like they do in the U.S. Álvarez eschewed soccer and karate to focus just on tennis around age ten; his education at an American school in Peru supplied him the English skills to thrive academically here.
His mother had played at Clemson, and she knew the opportunity college tennis presented. As the average age on the pro tour has steadily crept up, Smith explains, more international players have used college tennis as an incubator to prepare for the increased physicality of the professional ranks. Beyond that, in the U.S. the sport has unrivaled resources. “I always talk about how there’s so many college facilities that are absolutely amazing, like the one we have here [at Duke],” Álvarez says. Peru’s only similar club, he says, is the home for its tennis federation.
Applying to schools as an athlete from afar isn’t the easiest, especially for a Peruvian tennis player: Coaches “wouldn’t imagine that you’d be looking to come from Peru and play,” he says. He was reaching out to colleges—not vice versa—and sending them tapes of himself, including to the sole school whose academic ranking and tennis ranking were, at the time, both in the top-ten nationally. “You get a good feeling or a bad feeling pretty soon,” Smith says, of recruiting visits. And when Álvarez visited Duke’s campus, Smith had a “great” one: He offered a scholarship to Álvarez without ever seeing him play a match in-person.
It was a good decision on Smith’s part. After Álvarez committed, his results soon improved, and his junior ranking jumped from outside the top-100 to the top twenty. “Then I started receiving e-mails from coaches,” he says, laughing.
From carving a path to Duke as an unknown recruit, to adapting a style built on the clay courts of Peru for the hard courts of college tennis, to bouncing back from a wrist injury that cost him all of last spring, Álvarez has continued to develop. He’s won matches for college and country; he’ll wrap up his Duke career in 2019 and then take aim at the pro ranks.
That jump, from college to pros, isn’t an easy one to make. But if recent history is a predictor, odds are Álvarez has a better shot than it seems.
“I get a lot of videos, and sometimes it’s hard to tell [a player’s quality],” says Smith, of when he first watched tape of Álvarez. “But you could just tell his technique was rock solid. He was very good from the ground, no real holes.”
“Having said all that, he ended up being way, way better than I could’ve ever imagined.”