Arda Azkara may be a new face around the Mountain West Conference, but the freshman tennis player from Turkey has been gunning to conquer the tennis world ever since he was a kid. Now playing for the University of New Mexico, Azkara seized the conference’s attention when he swept the Mountain West Player and Freshman of the Week honors for the week of Feb. 10-16.
When asked about that week, the first thing he talked about was his team’s success.
“(It was) a tough week,” Azkara said. “Two big matches against Santa Clara and GCU … We were 0-2 on the season but we had those two good wins and now (on Thursday) we’re at 2-2.”
A team-first mindset is something that UNM head coach Chris Russell said is one of the first things he noticed about Azkara when the two first met.
“I could tell very quickly that he cared about his team and coming here and was wanting the team to do well,” Russell said. “And I think a lot of the stuff he’s adding is for himself, but I think he really wants to help the team.”
Azkara comes from a tennis family. His dad, Oguz, and uncle, Mustafa, were both tennis players. Azkara said his dad had him out on the court at 4 or 5 years old learning the game.
“I didn’t pick tennis,” Azkara said, laughing. “Tennis picked me.”
Azkara played with his friends in his tennis club starting around age 8, then progressed to official tournaments at 10. At 14, Azkara began traveling further, sometimes outside of Turkey, to play in tournaments. Azkara said this was something that was a bit intimidating at first.
“It was really stressful actually,” Azkara said. “I was in Georgia, in Europe. I was really stressed before my first match. But I won my first match outside of Turkey, and I was really happy afterwards. It was really tough because ... everything is different when you’re playing outside of your home.”
Even with these challenges, the new environments also brought confidence, Azkara said, and he went on to be ranked in the International Tennis Federation Junior Top 100 in May 2021.
It was around that time that he received a direct message through Instagram from UNM tennis that led to a phone call that led to an official offer. Up until then, Azkara hadn’t considered playing for a college, much less one so far from home, but he said his parents encouraged the idea and that friends he already knew in the program at UNM made it an easier transition.
Russell said Azkara has already grown as a player and has become more comfortable playing the long game.
“He’s learning how to apply pressure on opponents, not just trying to hit good shots,” Russell said. “He’s putting more together, and he’s understanding that he has to build (his) points.”
Russell said now that Azkara is less focused on finding the fastest winning shot rather than the best winning shot, opponents are having to hit more balls to beat him. This new endurance, combined with Azkara’s natural aggressive offense, has made him a more well-rounded player.
Azkara said most of his time is spent on tennis and classes and that he’s adjusted well to the new food in Albuquerque. He hasn’t decided on a major yet, though he wants to graduate with a degree that will fit well alongside his tennis skills like something in sports or business. As for after college, Azkara hopes to have a professional career in tennis and someday be one of the top 100 players in the world.
“That’s going to happen after college,” Azkara said. “Right now I really want to improve myself here at UNM and … we want to win the conference (in all) four (of my years) here.”
Matthew Salcido is the sports editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @baggyeyedguy