The vast green tennis court appears much too large for 5-foot-6-inch tall Takeshi Itoh until he begins to move from sideline to sideline reaching every ball hit in his direction.
What Itoh lacks in height and size, he makes up for with his speed.
“I am not really tall or strong,” he said. “I can’t overpower people, but I can get to balls and frustrate my opponent.”
Itoh, a senior, is now playing in the number one position for the UNM men’s tennis team. He is also ranked 93rd overall in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association’s poll of men’s singles players. With recent singles wins against Northern Arizona University, the University of Idaho, Tennessee Tech University and Texas Tech University, Itoh is proving that he deserves to be UNM’s top-seeded player. Head Coach Alan Dils said he knows he has the right man at the top.
“At times he wonders if he should be number one,” Dils said. “The last few matches have shown him that he should be there.”
Itoh was born in Sakai Osaka, Japan, in 1978. Tennis was in his blood at an early age, planted by his father, who once was one of the top 500 professional tennis players in the world.
He moved to Tampa Bay, Fla., by himself when he was 15 years old to attend Saddlebrook Academy, a tennis academy known for breeding great professional and junior players, he said. As a 17-year-old junior player, Itoh was Florida’s second-ranked player.
From Florida, Itoh made the transition to college in New Mexico. He said the dry weather and people were different, and the transition was not an easy one.
“The first year I struggled a little,” he said. “I didn’t play well, and I didn’t like UNM.”
Since his freshman year, Itoh has found his niche and worked his way up the ladder from playing in the number five and six positions to playing number one this season.
Natalia Alekhova of the UNM women’s team credits Itoh’s hard work for his success.
“He is very fast — he gives everything he has,” she said. “I have never seen anyone who trains that hard.”
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But more importantly, she said, he is a wonderful friend. Itoh said he respects all the friends he has made while at UNM.
“I met a lot of Japanese students who go to school here, so I hang out with them a lot,” he said. “All my friends really inspire me to work harder.”
On the court, Itoh works so hard he said that even his coaches tell him to have a little more fun.
“Until I came here, tennis was just a job,” he said. “I came here and learned from my coaches and friends to have more fun on the tennis court and in life in general.”
The UNM men’s team won the Mountain West Conference Championship last year and are practicing hard to defend the title. Itoh said he must to do his part and play well all season to help the team.
When he is not speeding to the net from the baseline, Itoh said he enjoys cooking Japanese food and listening to Japanese music. He mostly cooks rice with vegetables, and said he is scared to eat the fish here. He also enjoys fashion. Alekhova said that he once sewed his own jacket and has a history of buying expensive clothing.
“He does a lot with his hair too,” she said. “He had to call me back one night because he was busy blow-drying it. I don’t even do that.”
Itoh also said that he dreams of playing professionally and traveling around the world.
“The future is open to him,” Dils said. “I expect him to do better than he thinks he will.”
Dils said that Itoh’s focus and perseverance are qualities that will continue to propel him to greatness in the future.
Itoh said he does not know where he will be in five years, but tennis will be in his life.
“I don’t know what I love about it,” he said. “But I know I can’t give it up.”