May 18, 2011
By Leslie Saloom
College seniors across the country are closing one chapter on their education and starting the pursuit of a career. For Matteo Fago, he is closing a chapter he never imagined possible.
Fago, a senior from Ceprano, Italy, about 60 miles southeast of Rome, wrapped up his bachelor's degree in economics last week with a 3.3 GPA in three-and-a-half years. While graduation is a success in itself, learning a foreign language and adjusting to an entirely different country while being a student-athlete is an accomplishment not many can match.
"I wasn't thinking about college when I graduated from high school because I was playing in some tournaments," Fago said.
Then, current teammate Boris Conkic, a senior from Novi Sad, Serbia, and Fago met while playing in one of these tours through Egypt. Although language barriers proved to be somewhat of an issue, Conkic was able to communicate to Fago about his plan to play tennis at the collegiate level in the United States.
"That was the first time I seriously started to think about it," Fago said. "I realized that I missed school, and I would really like to earn a degree. It was always something I wanted to achieve from a personal goal."
In a few months' time, Conkic helped him prepare the correct paperwork and that's where Vols head coach Sam Winterbotham stepped in.
"I remember calling Matteo for the first time," Winterbotham said. "I couldn't speak any Italian and he couldn't speak any English. It was really a case of two people wanting to get information from each other but couldn't. I would laugh and he would laugh and that was the extent of our phone call."
With the help of relatives who live in the United States, Fago was able to get all the information he needed and decided to jump on the opportunity. In order to be admitted to the University of Tennessee and cleared by the NCAA, he needed to begin the process of learning the English language. He moved to Knoxville on his own accord in the fall of 2007 to start English language courses and completed the program allowing him to join the Volunteers for the 2008 spring season.
Adjusting to college life can be difficult for anyone but learning a new language and culture on top of that is not an easy feat.
"Of course, the first year in school, he probably took twice as long to study as a regular student because he was still translating the language in his mind," said Winterbotham, "It was a slow process for him. This is just a credit to him that he was willing to put in the hard work. For Matteo to say `I'll go abroad and study in a foreign language' shows a great deal about his character."
It did not take long for Fago to start making an impact in the classroom and on the court. As his English improved, so did his performance in school.
"He decided I am going to do well in school," continued Winterbotham, "and just put an incredible amount of effort into it. He was not going to let anything get in his way. That's just his personality. He was still able to continue a high level of success for us on the court. Then he realized he was getting better as a student. He understood how to be a student and he was able to maintain that on his own."
Fago credits some of his success to his surroundings.
"Since I have been here I have always had great teammates and coaches," he said. "Every time I need someone to help me I have always had that. It has been a pleasure to spend my time here."
The respect is mutual.
"Initially, we knew Matteo was a very good tennis player and that's about as much as we knew about him," Winterbotham said. "Once he was here, we really got to understand him. Matteo is one of those people who makes everybody else smile. People love being around him. He is such a dedicated worker and a pleasure to have in the program."
As an athlete, Fago along with his senior counterparts, Conkic and John-Patrick Smith, led the Vols to back to back SEC titles for the first time in program history, an NCAA finals appearance last year and a current No. 3 national ranking.
Approaching the final rounds of the NCAA Tennis Championships, Fago is 26-14 in singles matches this year having reached a career-high national ranking of 38 in January and 19-12 in doubles matches. He is only two singles wins shy of the 100th in his career.
Fago's numerous awards and titles include the 2010 NCAA Championships All-Tournament Team (No. 3 doubles), 2010 ITA Scholar Athlete, 2009 and 2010 SEC Academic Honor Roll, 2009 First Team All-SEC and his first career singles title at the 2010 Crimson Tide Fall Invitational.
After so much success in an individual collegiate career, one might ask what would be the next step? Fago says he is taking his time to enjoy his last few weeks at UT. It might be a career related to economics, a major he chose because he felt like it would give him a good background and many options after graduation or the pursuit of an advanced degree in graduate school.
"I really like learning," Fago said. "I would like to improve and further my education. I am not sure if I will stay here in the U.S. or go back home, but I will take some time to consider every option I have and then I'll be committed to it."
Enjoying his teammates and the college experience at UT is what Fago will miss the most.
"We have a fun time together," he said. "We all care so much about each other and want each other to do well. That's the best thing about this program."
And when asked about his biggest accomplishment in his time as a Volunteer, aside from the fact that he will be the first person in his family to graduate from a university in the United States, he said: "It would be my degree first off and then the fact that I always tried to do all that I could as a student-athlete. Sometimes it was extremely hard, but I don't think I could have done more as a student or a tennis player. When I look back at where I was when I first got here and what I have accomplished, that's what makes me really proud."
Fago is a great example for the his teammates, Winterbotham said.
"He doesn't procrastinate when it comes to school, stays on top of his studies, is organized and comes to practice ready to take full advantage of the individuals we have here. The amount of time he spent one-on-one with the coaching staff is an example to the rest of the team. He made the decision to come to the University of Tennessee to get a college degree and develop his tennis. Those were his number one and two priorities throughout his career.
"It is one thing to say and as coaches we try to recruit those who want to do that. He actually followed through on it."