TAMPA BAY, Fla. — Tunisia is more famous for its jasmine flowers and dates than for producing tennis players, but Wael Kilani is trying to change that.
After university, the 23 year old University of South Florida senior plans on bringing his tennis expertise to his homeland.
Kilani developed his love for the sport as a preschooler. While he grew up watching his father play for Tunis Esperance, the most successful soccer team in Tunisia, it was his father’s other pastime that caught his heart.
“I started practising with him tennis at the age of five,” he said, before an NCAA tennis encounter against the University of Pennsylvania. “After one year I moved to the best tennis club in the capital.”
By the time he was 12, Kilani had won the Tunisian Under 12 Championship and he would go on to win the African championship in the under 18 singles and doubles. He also participated in the Australian Open, US Open and Wimbledon Juniors.
The sport would eventually bring him to the United States.
“The University of South Florida recruited me for my tennis skills and talents,” he said. “They offered me a full scholarship to compete for the school.”
Success followed him to the land of opportunity where he received the Big East Freshman of the Year award and in his sophomore year he was ranked in the top 75 in the ITA singles rankings.
As with everything else in life, riding the high wave was transient.
When the world turned its attention to the uprising in his home country, Kilani found himself increasingly preoccupied with the safety of his family and tennis had to take a temporary backseat.
“I was more focused on the news,” he said. “So it was really hard.”
His Bulls coach, Don Barr, also noticed the change in his player.
“He might not say a word but definitely deep down you know it’s got to be on their minds,” he said.
That’s why he made sure Kilani could reach out to him.
“You try to comfort them and try to advise them the best you can,” he said. “My door is always open for them. It’s not just about tennis.”
But what keeps Kilani moving forward is his passion for the game. The university student, who is currently studying business management, hopes to expand tennis in Tunisia.
“I look forward to getting back to my home country and use my skills, experiences and everything I learned here in my college … to help my country improve in this hard sport that needs a lot of sacrifices from players and parents and sponsors to get better and become more popular.”