Cristian Rodriguez began his tennis career with the goal of going pro in Argentina. He now seeks a degree in communication studies while playing tennis at Huntington University. 

By Anna Hershberger, Contributor

“More than goals are, like, dreams,” Cristian Rodriguez says. “It was my dream to become a professional player.”

OFF THE COURT: Rodriguez, a tennis player, is pursuing a degree in communication studies at Huntington University. (Photo taken by Anna Hershberger)

At just 6 years of age, Rodriguez started playing tennis in Catamarca, Argentina, where he and his sister were born and raised. 

At 12 years old, Rodriguez won a national tennis tournament against a 32 draw in Buenos Aires. 

At 13 years old, he moved away from his home and parents to Córdoba, Argentina, so that he could continue training at Ines Gorrochategui Tennis Academy, which was closer to his tennis tournaments. 

At 19 years old, Rodriguez began studying English. 

Today, at 21 years old, Rodriguez studies and plays tennis at Huntington University.

Rodriguez started playing tennis in hopes to go pro. He now studies about 5,000 miles (8,843 km) away in Huntington, Indiana on tennis scholarship. A short biography of his life shows how he faces life as an adventure, one in which he just hopes to “be happy.” 

Catamarca is a province of Argentina, the province that Rodriguez calls home. His sister began playing tennis there at the same time he did, in 2007.

“I don’t know if it was in inspiration or if it was because my mom said to me, ‘You have to go,’” Rodriguez says when describing his motivation for attending tennis practice with his sister for the first time.

Carla, Rodriguez’s sister, who is 4 years older than him, played tennis for six months. She was the source that peaked Rodriguez’s interest in the sport.

“I wanted to go, but it was because my sister was going too,” Rodriguez says.

It wasn’t long before six-year-old Rodriguez fell in love with the sport. His sister left tennis training in Catamarca after six months, but that was only the beginning of Rodriguez’s tennis career.

 Between the ages of six and twelve, Rodriguez trained with different clubs in Catamarca, traveling between different provinces most weekends to competitions.

“I don’t remember all of [the clubs],” Rodriguez says, “but I was working with different coaches [throughout that time].”

At only 12 years of age, he gained the attention of a coaching scout in Buenos Aires after winning a national tennis tournament against a 32 draw (meaning there were 32 players and 16 initial matches). He beat five people to win the competition.

This coach approached him post-tournament to talk him into moving to Buenos Aires, where he could train with a different tennis club and master his skills.

Rodriguez’s father wasn’t fond of the idea of him moving to Buenos Aires. Not only was the province too far away—it has a poor track record of public safety.

“My dad said, ‘No, Buenos Aires is far away—let’s try to find a place in Córdoba,’” Rodriguez says.

Five hours away from their home in Catamarca, Córdoba is a province that sits in the middle of Argentina. There, Rodriguez could live in closer proximity to national tennis tournaments.

“No, no no no,” Rodriguez’s immediate response to being asked if he had been thinking about moving at this point. “When we arrived to Buenos Aires, we weren’t thinking about that.”

After giving it more thought, he and his family decided that his move would be a good step forward in his tennis career.

“I wasn’t scared to get on an adventure,” Rodriguez says. 

“I was asking people, like, ‘Hey guys, what do you think—a good academy in Córdoba?’” Rodriguez says, “We found that one,” referring to Ines Gorrochategui Tennis Academy, where he began training at age 13.

FOND MEMORIES: “It’s a good memory,” Rodriguez says and smiles while looking at photos from the academy in Cordoba, Argentina, where he grew up practicing tennis. (Photo taken from Google Maps)

In Argentina, high school starts at age 12. With the help of his tennis academy, Rodriguez was able to work towards his high school diploma online while focusing on tennis training every day. His family was not with him at his apartment in Córdoba, but they were no less present in his life.

“My family always supported me a lot,” he says. 

He had a good relationship with his parents and sister, calling them every day and hosting them when they would visit. 

He was living alone in an apartment three blocks away from Ines Gorrochategui Tennis Academy while he trained in Córdoba.

“My dad likes to look like a hard man, but he’s not,” Rodriguez shares a laugh while discussing his parents’ reaction to the change. “He was talking to my mom and telling her, ‘I miss him a lot.’ My mom was crying every single day.”

The departure was difficult on his family, but not so much for Rodriguez.

“They supported me, and I just got excited to live in another province,” Rodriguez says. “I just got super excited!”

But his eventful years of training were not without trials.

“One moment it was super hard for me,” Rodriguez says. “It was in 2016, I came back for three months, but then I missed a lot and I came back to preseason and started again.”

At this point, Rodriguez was 16 years old.

“I think I was kind of mentally tired about everything,” Rodriguez says when asked about this three-month period. “And I think I just wanted my mom to cook something for me. And come back home and just, like, have everything easy, and I think I was tired of the hard way for me. I needed a little bit of the easy way.”

Michelle Caulk, a licensed mental health counselor, an assistant professor, and director of clinical experiences at Huntington University, discussed the ways that athletes cope with the stress of athletics in an email interview.

“It’s important to note that burnout should be prevented, rather than treated once it’s already occurred,” Caulk says. 

One tip she mentions in burnout prevention for athletes is taking a longer “sabbatical” from the sport, which is exactly what Rodriguez did.

Rodriguez got what he was looking for in his return to Catamarca, but didn’t stay there long.   

“I missed a lot [the training and the people],” Rodriguez says. “Because I was practicing in Catamarca and it was bad so I said, like, ‘No, I cannot deal with this. I have to come back.’”

One of the people that Rodriguez befriended in Córdoba and missed when he was at home was Valentin Mussi, a teammate at his academy.

“I was probably twelve when we met,” Mussi says. “Cristian was probably thirteen or fourteen.”

Rodriguez would often spend summers and the time where he couldn’t be with his family at Mussi’s house, stated both Mussi and Rodriguez.

“He’s like a brother,” Rodriguez says.

He, along with teammates like Mussi, spent the next three years continuing to practice and compete at the Academy, with the hopes of competing professionally.

In 2019, when Rodriguez was 19 years old, Ines Gorrochategui Tennis Academy closed permanently. That led Rodriguez to rethink his dream of becoming a professional athlete.    

“At that moment was when I said like, ‘Ya okay, I think this is not going anywhere,” Rodriguez says about his dream of going pro. He had graduated high school and his next steps were unclear after he decided playing tennis professionally was not for him.  

But he wasn’t ready to quit the sport completely.

“I started to study English and I had the idea to come here,” Rodriguez says.  

But why go to college nearly 5,000 miles away from home when he could earn a degree in Argentina?

In America, college students can compete in athletics through the university while pursuing a degree. Argentina is different.

MEET THE COACH: Ignacio “Nacho” Poncio is currently coaching tennis his second season at Huntington University, his alma mater. (Photo taken from the Huntington University website)

“I think that the U.S. is the only one that really has that avenue,” Ignacio (Nacho) Poncio, head coach of Huntington University’s tennis team, also from Argentina, says in a zoom interview. “In all the other countries that I know of, you have to decide—either you study or you play.”

Studying while competing at a challenging level of athleticism doesn’t really work outside of the U.S. 

Gerard Baker, in his Wall Street Journal published article, says that, “The unique nature of college sports to American culture is a critical part of its success.”

“So you can come, you can still compete at the highest level and have the backup,” Poncio says, explaining why tehre are many international athletes on his team’s roster. “You can try and see if you go pro afterwards, but if you don’t make it, you still have a degree to lean on and do a professional career.”

Many international athletes, including Rodriguez, choose to pursue a degree in America so that they can obtain further education without giving up the sport they love.  

Rodriguez had multiple options as a college recruit, including Dominican College (a NCAA Division II program in New York), Reinhardt University (a NAIA college), and Huntington University (also NAIA). He worked with Di Salvo Spalletti College Recruitment, an agency in Córdoba which helped him send stats, videos, and other information to tennis coaches in America in order to get offers.

WAY BACK: Mussi (left) and Rodriguez (right) met when Rodriguez was 13 and Mussi was 12, at Ines Gorrochategui Tennis Academy. They’ve been friends ever since. (Photo provided by Cristian Rodriguez)

Rodriguez’s decision came down to more than just what the schools had to offer as far as tennis opportunities.

At the same time Coach Pacino was working to recruit Rodriguez for HU, he was also working to recruit Valentin Mussi, Rodriguez’s lifelong friend and teammate from Ines Gorrochategui (see the photo titled WAY BACK).

“I reached out to Valentin and then when I convinced Valentin, I told Cristian that Valentin was coming…” Pacino says. “I didn’t know they were that good of friends.”

But they had been friends for years. 

“I saw he was coming and I was like—I [felt] something good about it,” Mussi says, recalling what it felt like to learn from Pacino that Rodriguez was planning to attend Huntington with him. “I was like, ‘Okay I’m coming here and I have a friend.’”

Knowing his friend would be here—and the coach was from Argentina—made Rodriguez’s college decision easier.

“If for the same money I had the opportunity to come here, I will choose to go with my friend and this coach that is Argentian,” Rodriguez says when asked what made Huntington the best choice for him.

Rodriguez’s immediate response to the question of his plans after college and his dreams for the future: “Be happy.”