How ASU tennis is connected to Australia

Sophomore Ebony Panoho reaches for the ball, returning it back to her opponent, at the Whiteman Tennis Center on Sunday, March 2. ASU won the match 7-0. (Photo by Becca Smouse)

Sophomore Ebony Panoho reaches for the ball, returning it back to her opponent, at the Whiteman Tennis Center on Sunday, March 2. ASU won the match 7-0. (Photo by Becca Smouse)

Statistically, tennis is one of the more predominant sports in the world.

Athletes compete in junior competitions, but 18 is often the end of international tennis players’ careers.

“If they’re not quite ready for the pros, they sort of fizzle out,” ASU associate head coach and Australia-native Clint Letcher said.

America seems to have found a system for this.

“What’s great about the U.S. is that they have college tennis,” Letcher said.

Athletes from around the globe come to America to compete in college. ASU is no exception — three of the team’s nine players are from a foreign country: Australia.

The modern international athlete on the ASU tennis team stemmed from Letcher.

To be more precise, the modern international athlete on the ASU tennis team stemmed from former men’s tennis assistant coach Laurie Warder.

The year was 2001.

Men’s tennis was still a Division I NCAA sport at ASU. Led by coach Lou Belken, the team was looking to rise from its No. 37 ITA ranking.

Warder looked to his Australian roots. He had a friend who was had competed as a finalist in both the Australian and U.S. Open. This man was ranked by the ATP and was married to the No. 180 WTA player.

This man was Cliff Letcher. He had a son who was at the proper age to decide whether to play professionally, find a new profession or attend college and work on his craft in the U.S.

This was Clint Letcher.

Letcher said he was recruited by many different colleges. This was not surprising; he had played in a variety of different junior opens, including the Grand Slam Juniors at the Australian Open and Wimbledon.

Ultimately, he chose ASU.

ASU tennis freshman Gussie O'Sullivan returns a backhand volley in practice at the Whiteman Tennis Center in Tempe. (Photo by Evan Webeck)

ASU tennis freshman Gussie O’Sullivan returns a backhand volley in practice at the Whiteman Tennis Center in Tempe. (Photo by Evan Webeck)

“My dad had such a good relationship with Laurie,” he said. “It really wasn’t in doubt.”

More than a decade later, Letcher remains at ASU, but now as a coach, and has recruited fellow Aussies to the University.

Sophomore Ebony Panoho grew up in Australia. Her dad first showed her the sport of tennis when she was 4 years old, and at the age of 12, she registered with the National Academy in Brisbane.

Panoho compared this program to her college experience at ASU.

“We just train every day and then we do weights and conditioning and stuff like that,” she said.

They also had to find time for schoolwork while competing in tournaments.

She gained more than just tennis experience through tournaments. While competing, she met a girl named Sophie Letcher. The two played doubles together frequently, and Panoho met the girl’s family.

She was the sister of Clint Letcher, and through this, Panoho got to know Clint.

Panoho began her college search. Some universities such as Baylor University and Arkansas State University worked to recruit Panoho. However, her connection and friendship with the Letcher family was the ultimate factor to follow Clint to ASU.

Panoho said this was not the only factor, though.

“The weather’s great here,” she said. “Also, the coaches and then the girls on the team were really nice to me when I was on my trip here.”

The weather and coaches were a factor for more than one Australian native. Freshman Gussie O’Sullivan said the weather in Arizona is similar to that of Australia, and the coaches are no strangers to tennis.

“(The coaches) are known to be some of the best,” O’Sullivan said.

She has firsthand experience with the coaches; she knew both Letcher and coach Sheila McInerney before attending ASU.

O’Sullivan’s mom played tennis with Letcher’s parents, and the families grew close.

“Gussie’s parents went to my parents’ wedding,” Letcher said.

O’Sullivan also had connections with McInerney.

“My mom used to play in Sheila’s era,” O’Sullivan said. “One of Sheila’s good friends is also good friends with my mom.”

Her decision was a no-brainer, and she chose ASU.

She was not the final freshman to sign with ASU — freshman Alex Osborne joined the squad in January.

Although she did not know Letcher, she saw other Australian natives head to Arizona.

“I knew Eb and Gussie were here,” she said. “It’s an awesome program, and I really wanted to be part of it.”

Osborne first picked up a racket when she was 11. She had played multiple sports before tennis, including soccer, track & field and netball, an English derivative of American basketball. She said these helped her pick up tennis quickly.

They also allowed her to enroll in the Meriden School for Girls. The school had the Olympus Program, which was a program to help athletes in the school compete.

McInerney said Osborne is a little raw, being at ASU for only two months, but has potential to develop.

“She moves a lot; she brings a lot of energy,” McInerney said.

McInerney said Australian recruitment was useful, and easier, with Letcher and without a language barrier found in Eastern Europe.

“It’s easier to identify the players over there,” McInerney said. “You sort of know their system.”

She said her players went to traditional schools instead of “playing the circuit.”

Other colleges have tennis players from all over the world; six of the eight San Diego tennis players came from Europe.

UA has four tennis players from Europe and NAU has three.

Letcher helped bridge the Pacific Ocean-sized gap between Australia and the U.S. and grabbed competent young athletes with potential to not only help ASU compete at high levels, but help the tennis players grow as athletes.

“College tennis has really turned into a stepping stone to the pro ranks,” he said.

Reach the reporter at logan.newman@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @Logan_Newsman