One of the most unique aspects of Division I college tennis is the vast number of international student-athletes who travel thousands of miles to pursue their tennis careers and education. In this climate, the Oklahoma men’s tennis team gets a a special contribution from a player from its own backyard.
OU junior Spencer Papa is playing collegiate tennis at the highest level under an hour from his childhood home, in Edmond, Okla.
Oklahoma head coach Nick Crowell, in his first season at the helm, knows how important it has been to the program to have that ‘hometown kid’ to help lead Oklahoma men’s tennis the right way.
“He just carries that Oklahoma pride,” Crowell said. “I think international players look up to him when they come in. They know him from juniors and remember him being one of the best players in the world, and now he’s one of the elite college players.”
Spencer Papa celebrates a win in the Sooners' 2016 NCAA Championships run. Papa is one of just two Sooners from the United States and has been integral to Oklahoma men's tennis since stepping foot on campus.
Papa’s success and rise up the ranks at the junior tennis level was not a simple one. Born in Newport Beach, Calif., Papa moved to Edmond as a baby, but that’s not where he developed most as a player. He moved to Boca Raton, Fla., at the age of 13 to live and train at the United States Tennis Association (USTA) to further develop his game. Two years later, his parents moved away and he was already living by himself.
“It was kind of like going to college starting when I was 13 years old,” Papa said. “I was living with a bunch of other guys living in dorms. It was different for sure, but I got to travel to places I never would have been able to without it, so it had its benefits. It was an opportunity that came up that I couldn’t really turn down.”
By 17, Papa was the 15th-ranked singles player in the world on the International Tennis Federation (ITF) circuit.
"He’s a little bit like Tom Brady right now. He’s been quarterbacking us at No. 1 most of the season and he’s done a great job there and being more vocal in the locker room."
- Head Coach Nick Crowell
“It was kind of like the fast track toward going pro, you get to travel the world and play the biggest tournaments in the world growing up,” Papa said.
With his life then revolving around tennis, Papa’s rigorous, consistent schedule prepared him for college.
“It was actually probably even busier than it is now. We’d wake up early, play, go to school and have lunch, and then we’d play again and do fitness. Then, we would have night school, so it was a full day.”
Although Papa has always been at the top of the tennis totem pole as he’s progressed through the levels, Crowell pointed out that off the court, his laid back, likable personality reaches out to people.
“He’s very laid back, and I think he’s one of the most likable guys on our team,” Crowell stated. “He does an unbelievable job just embracing the new players that come in. He gives them rides, shows them where to go, takes them around campus and it’s the same with our recruits that came in during the fall. Every recruit that we have talks about Spencer Papa to me all the time. Spencer’s just been a great leader and person to have at Oklahoma.”
After a fantastic freshman campaign where he went 14-11 in singles, mostly at the No. 5 spot, Papa took another jump as a sophomore, playing more at No. 2 and No. 3 singles where he earned 11 wins in dual play. He was also once named the Big 12 Player of the Week.
Alex Ghilea (left) and Spencer Papa celebrate a doubles win at the 2016 NCAA Championships. The Sooners have finished as national runners-up in each of the last three seasons.
Now, Papa stands at No. 28 in the Oracle/ITA national singles rankings, and is pacing the Sooners at the No. 1 singles position with a 5-4 record. He defeated No. 7 Alfredo Perez of Florida at the 2017 ITA National Indoor Championship to help give Oklahoma a top-10 win over the Gators, and defeated Tulsa’s No. 27 Or-Ram Harel in Norman in February.
He went on to earn his second career Big 12 Player of the Week honor on Feb. 28. His hard work, success and leadership this year have garnered him high praise from his coach, even drawing comparisons to the greatest of all-time from another sport.
“He’s a little bit like Tom Brady right now,” Crowell declared. “He’s been quarterbacking us at No. 1 most of the season and he’s done a great job there and being more vocal in the locker room. He’s done a great job overall and I think we’ll see even bigger things from him in the future, too.”
The college route had never been the plan, or even the goal for Papa growing up in Oklahoma and Florida. Often, the world’s top juniors will surpass college and go immediately to the professional circuit. That thought was in Papa’s mind for much of his time in Florida.
“When I went out to Florida, I wanted to play pro,” Papa admitted. “As college got a little closer, OU had an amazing team and so much success with (then-head coach) John Roddick and everyone, so it was just kind of something that came up. When I moved down to Florida, I was never really considering coming back to OU, but those last two years, OU ended up being really good and it was just a good opportunity.”
It wasn’t just about him. Papa knew his family would benefit from moving back to the Sooner state, as many of his relatives live in the area, and he had a feeling his younger brother, Colton, now a freshman at OU, was eager to become a Sooner himself.
“My dad’s dad actually lived out here and some of my mom’s family lived out here,” Papa said. “My mom came here (to OU) for two years, and I knew my brother wanted to come back. It’s been good for him, he’s now here at OU, and it all worked out.”
Crowell is thankful he did decide come back, as Papa has been an extremely important facet of Oklahoma men’s tennis for three years both on and off the court. As a prominent player on the squad from the area, Papa is a cultural ambassador of sorts for the team.
“The guys coming from overseas – everything is brand new. The food is new, the living arrangements are new and the coaches and players on the team are new,” Crowell said. “Spencer is really good at helping these guys transition. Taking them around and embracing them, they really look up to him that way. I think that’s one of his strongest suits, he’s a very compassionate person.”
Papa has had his fair share of clutch moments in Norman, and it’s hard to see Oklahoma making three consecutive NCAA Finals without Papa there for two of them. Papa has picked up wins in each of his two NCAA Finals showings.
He defeated the 16th-ranked doubles team of Thai-Son Kwiatkowski and Mac Styslinger of Virginia in the 2016 final with partner Alex Ghilea, and earned Oklahoma’s lone point in the 2015 final against Virginia, defeating Alexander Ritschard. He also beat UCLA’s Gage Brymer in the 2016 quarterfinals, and won three singles matches in Oklahoma’s 2015 championship run at National Indoors. Now, taking it one step further is the only thing on Papa’s mind.
“I’ve already been to the finals twice, so I guess the only goal is to win it now,” Papa said. “That’s the main goal we have right now. It just requires putting in the hard work every day. It kind of starts this weekend with two big matches.”
Crowell can see the progress Papa has made as a player just this season alone.
“His serve has gotten a lot better,” Crowell said. “I think most of it is mental. Tennis is a lot between the ears, and when things don’t go your way you have to handle that adversity. I think that’s where he’s made some big jumps this year.”
Papa (far left) rushes the court with his teammates after the Sooners clinched a third straight NCAA Finals appearance in 2016.
The opportunity to have his family and friends see all of his achievements is something Papa is thankful for as well. He knows it isn’t the same for the majority of his teammates. Seniors Florin Bragusi and Alex Ghilea are from Romania, freshmen Jochen Bertsch and Adrian Oetzbach are from Germany, freshman Arnaud Restifo comes from France and senior Andrew Harris is an Australia native.
“I can’t imagine coming here from a different country, so I’ve tried to help them out anyway I can to help them feel more comfortable and at home,” Papa stated. “We have the foreign guys on the team whose parents try to watch it online, and I’m lucky enough to have most of my family come down. It’s nice to have that support and be able to look up and see your family watching you – it’s pretty awesome.”
Oklahoma loses three seniors at the finale of this season, and three of the most successful players in program history at that – Bragusi, Ghilea and Harris – so Papa will take on an even larger role next year on and off the court, something Crowell has prepared him for.
“He’s kind of turning into the face of our program right now and over the next year and a half. I’m trying to get him to embrace that role, because he’ll be a senior next year,” Crowell acknowledged.
Crowell went on, pointing out how well Papa has adjusted throughout his tennis career.
“Spencer’s turned into an elite college tennis player,” Crowell said. “Coming from juniors to college, there’s a little bit of a transition. I feel like this year, he’s really made that jump to one of the top 20 guys in the country. Spencer’s capable of beating anybody in the country. He just has to play his game. When he does, you better watch out.”
Papa has dedicated so much of his life to the sport of tennis, and it has been a long road since his playing career started around just five years old. He wants to extend his career as long as possible, making sure all of that work is used up to the fullest extent.
“When I’m done here, I definitely want to give pro tennis a shot for a little bit and play for at least a year to see how it goes,” Papa said.
No matter how his career plays out, Papa has put everything he has into the sport.
“I’ve learned a lot of life lessons through tennis like hard work and dedication. A lot of sacrifice has gone into it, and just a lot of hard work every day. It’s been quite a journey for sure, but it’s been fun.”