Rams acquire travelled tennis star to roster

Ex-professional tennis player gets cleared to compete at Division III level with the Rams

April 11, 2018

For an athlete who initially chose a professional tennis career, 23-year-old freshman Ariel Ilarslan Russo retired and decided to take his tennis skills to the collegiate level. Russo was recently cleared by the NCAA to take the court with the Rams.

NCAA Eligibility Process

In the fall, the Panama native approached associate head coach Matthew Tiberii about joining the men’s tennis team, but it was not until the beginning of the spring semester where the actual eligibility process began to take place.

The NCAA informed the Rams that Russo could officially be a member of the roster on March 26. The freshman competed in his first singles and doubles competition with the team on March 28 against Curry College.

“As far as the process with the NCAA it was fairly streamlined. We collected all the information from [Russo] with statements and submitted for an official interpretation of his eligibility to participate at Suffolk,” said Athletic Director Cary McConnell in a recent interview with The Suffolk Journal.

According to Tiberii, the month-long process consisted of getting an eligibility waiver cleared by the NCAA office in Indianapolis, which was completed, and the NCAA made the decision that Russo could be a student athlete.

“It was not easy,” said Tiberii in an interview with The Journal. “When you play pro-tennis and you take money you are ineligible [to be a student athlete]. So we had to go through the process of making him an athlete again. He didn’t make enough money on the professional tour to validate anything, so that’s how we were able to get it through the NCAA and now he’s a rising star on our team.”

Although prior to this season Russo was ineligible to play as a collegiate athlete, the NCAA states on their official website that “a current tennis student-athlete may accept prize money as long as the amount of the prize is less than or equal to his or her expenses for participating in the competition.”

Tiberii compared the professional level in which Russo played at to single A minor league baseball. Tiberii also disclosed that Russo had a personal record of 2-25 as a professional tennis player.

“The energy he brings and the way he practices makes the guys work harder,” said Tiberii. “Players look up to him. He was in the real world for a little while. The real world playing tennis across the world, so if you call that the real world.”

Playing around the world

Prior to being a Ram, Russo’s tennis journey took place outside of the United States. He started playing tennis with his parents in his home country of Panama when he was just 8-years-old and played for four years in an academy. At age 12, Russo was ranked number three in the country and decided to move to Argentina to expand on his talent. At 14-years-old, the Ram played for the World Cup in juniors while representing Panama.

According to sofascore.com, this was the country Russo obtained his two professional tournament victories in June 2016.

Additionally, Russo competed in tournaments in the U.S., including the Junior Orange Bowl International Tennis Championship and the Eddie Herr International Junior Championship.

“After finishing high school I had to choose to either play professionally or go to college. I decided to go [professional] and started traveling to tournaments around the world,” said Russo in an interview with The Journal.

Competing as a collegiate athlete

The freshman impressed when he won the Great Northeast Atlantic Conference (GNAC) Corvias Player of the Week after he went 3-0 in singles play making him the first Ram to accomplish this honor since 2011. Russo has become a major reinforcement for the Rams. After he displayed his talents, Russo took over as first singles, the most important position on the roster.

Though the collegiate level is much different than the professional stage, Russo said he enjoys being a member of the Rams.

“Even though traveling and meeting new players and cultures around the world is fun, college is also an enjoyable environment and it’s amazing to play for Suffolk,” said Russo. “In college you have a team that supports you, so it’s a nice experience.”

Teammates surrounding Russo have been amazed with what the player had accomplished in only his first week.

Junior captain Chris Parnagian had positive comments about his new teammate.

There is no simpler way to put it, he is just a beast.

— Chris Parnagian

“There is no simpler way to put it, he is just a beast,” said Parnagian in an interview with The Journal. “He is not only fundamentally strong, but mentally as well. He doesn’t let a missed ball affect his game.”

Junior teammate Charles Tang said how Russo has been an asset to the Rams lineup, noting how everyone can learn from him just by merely practicing with him.

“[Russo] being [on the team] makes us better players just through playing with him,” said Tang in a recent interview with The Journal. “Watching him play at singles is a joy to behold.”

Russo’s presence on the team is one that has become a key element in the Rams’ lineup, but also for ex-professional athlete himself.

“We are thrilled for [Russo] to have this opportunity to represent Suffolk on the tennis court,” said McConnell. “As with all our student-athletes, it is a privilege for him to be to part of an intercollegiate team while pursuing his degree and it will be a tremendous growth experience in terms intangible skills.”


Sports Editor Brooke Patterson contributed to the reporting of this article.

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