Linda Robertson

Linda Robertson: Unique roster putting Barry men’s tennis on the map ‒ the world map

Barry University No. 1 singles player Ahmed Triki hails from Tunisia.
Barry University No. 1 singles player Ahmed Triki hails from Tunisia. NCAA Photos

At the start of every match, the Barry University men’s tennis team gathers in a circle and performs a pep chant.

“Who are we?” the players yell. “We are Barry!”

“Who are we?” they repeat. “Bucs!”

Word is getting out. The little school in Miami Shores is a tennis powerhouse.

Tennis players have put Barry on the map. The world map.

When No. 1 singles player Ahmed Triki goes home to Tunisia, people in his home country recognize the Barry name. When No. 2 singles player Fabian Groetsch goes home to Germany, players ask him if they, too, can go to Barry.

“I tell them it’s tough to get a tennis scholarship to Barry now,” Groetsch said. “You have to be really, really good.”

Around South Florida, Barry’s reputation is growing as well. Championships tend to raise a school’s profile. The men’s team won its second national title in three years on Saturday, defeating No. 1-ranked Hawaii-Pacific in Surprise, Arizona, as Nico Dreer came back from a 2-5 deficit in the third set to beat his cramping opponent and secure the trophy. The women’s team won the national title last year and finished second this season. Barry’s golf teams and women’s rowing teams are also national powers.

“I rented a car in Miami and I was wearing my Barry hat, and when the rental agent realized I was on the tennis team she said congratulations and gave me a free upgrade,” Groetsch said. “If I wear Barry clothes at the mall, people notice and approach me.”

Men’s tennis coach George Samuel remembers the days when nobody knew what Barry was. He got quizzical looks about the school founded in 1940 by the Adrian Dominican Sisters. For a while, the nuns were his team’s only fans.

“Barry who? I heard that often,” Samuel said. “I feel like a pioneer. It’s been fun to develop the program from its infancy. I thought eventually I’d want to move up from coaching Division II to Division I, but we’ve built something special here.”

Samuel, 60, took up tennis at age 21 when working at an orthopedic appliances factory. He started coaching Barry men’s and women’s tennis 25 years ago while teaching sports science courses as an adjunct professor for a $9,000 salary. Samuel, who grew up in Allapattah, Little River and Miami Shores, came to realize he never wanted to leave his hometown.

Yet his team is from all over the globe. He has had eight Haitian players on his teams, including former Haitian prime minister Laurent LaMothe, and many Latin American players. This year, the roster was made up of four Germans, one Swiss, one Argentinean, one North African and two Americans, one of whom is the son of Bosnians. The women’s team, coached by Israel native Avi Kigel, has three Germans, two Romanians, two Americans, one from Montreal and one from Noumea, New Caledonia.

“I try to learn enough of their languages to make sure they’re not talking behind my back,” Samuel said. “I know some Spanish, German, Polish and Chinese.

“But, you know, tennis is the same game in any language. There are certain universal things you can do together as a human race and tennis is one of them.”

Samuel utilizes a vast network of contacts to recruit players. Years ago, when he scheduled a Mediterranean cruise vacation, he managed to scout players in Poland, Denmark, Germany and the Czech Republic — and signed all four. He used to make phone calls at all hours and received videotapes of varying technical origin.

“I had several different types of players or I’d have to take the tapes in to get them converted before I could watch them,” he said. “The Internet has made things much more efficient.”

These days, Samuel fields up to 20 inquiries a day from players or their coaches. Barry is in demand. He has a total of 4.5 scholarships per year to divide among 10 players.

Triki is one of Barry’s reclamation stories. He had quit tennis for three years after a junior career that took him to No. 68 in the world in Under-18s.

He decided to focus on his studies in Tunis rather than take the huge financial gamble of turning pro. His old coach was talking to a Barry assistant coach last year, and they persuaded Triki to give tennis another go.

“My first two months in Miami were the toughest of my life because I was losing to all my teammates and trying to get fit again,” Triki said. “Coach Samuel was patient. He told me not to give up.”

Triki, 22, ranked No. 3 in the nation, led Barry to its 26-0 record. He and Groetsch won their doubles match against Hawaii-Pacific 8-4, but he was losing his championship singles match 3-5 in the third set when Dreer finished off his opponent on another court.

“I heard Fabian and Renato [Lombardi] screaming as they ran toward me and realized we had won,” Triki said. “I threw my racket in the air. We were all crying in joy.”

Groetsch turned down a Barry offer in 2010 to concentrate on his studies in Nuremberg. Then former Barry player Max Wimmer persuaded him to reconnect with Samuel.

But Samuel told Groetsch he would only offer him a scholarship if he was able to beat assistant coach Thomas Hipp. Groetsch and Hipp met in Stuttgart. Groetsch won the match, 7-6, and his ticket to Miami.

The title Saturday was a dramatic and fitting conclusion for a team that came back from injuries to four key players this season.

“They’ve asked me to inscribe the inside of their rings with a specific phrase,” Samuel said. “They want it to say: Let’s show them who we are.”