By Timothy Durham
Big 12 Campus Correspondent
Alexis Klegou is not a true tennis player. Although he is a senior member of the Texas A&M men's tennis team, he says because of his late start in tennis when he was younger, he was set back from the rest of field.
"My Dad played in France, and when I was young, we would get maybe three hours every week of practice," Klegou said. "But when you start playing at the age of eight or nine, you're already years behind the top players. But I didn't let that stop me, I loved tennis and I kept at it anyway."
Klegou, from a small city in northern France called Dunkerque, came to Texas A&M after his senior year of school in France. But Klegou says his decision to play tennis in college came after a period of indecision that was caused by the way things work in France.
"There is no system like the American system in France for college tennis," Klegou said. "You can't play tennis and also do school. Sports are just not as important over there. You have to make a choice of playing part time or turning pro."
After his last year of school, Alexis decided to try out playing in a few tournaments here and there to test the waters. He quickly became nationally ranked in the juniors bracket at 17 years old. After a few wins, he jumped up to No. 5 nationally at 18 years old. That year, "Gou," as his teammates now call him, was invited to play in a qualifying tournament for the French Open.
"I decided to play the tournament and I ended up qualifying for the French Open," Klegou said. "In the tournament, I played a guy who was 30th in the world and lost a very close match. From that point on, I made a decision to play full time."
So Gou went to train with an organization in the south of France, in a region called Nice (pronounced "Neess"). But unfortunately after a year there, the organization decided to no longer support its younger players and only to support it's high level professional players. That was when Alexis heard about collegiate tennis in the United States and decided to come to play in the in the U.S.
After some research, Gou decided to come to Texas A&M. But after arriving, he was informed of some of the rules of playing in professional tournaments and their impact on college eligibility. The deadline for playing in pro tournaments was only days before Alexis had competed in his last tournaments, so his choice to stay at A&M became questioned.
"I could have gone to UCLA because they have a quarter system," Klegou said. "Because they start on the 16th of September, I would have met the deadline and I would have been able to play from my first year. But I decided to stay and I am sure that I have made the choice that was right for me."
Coming to Texas was quite the culture shock for Gou. The big city was not a problem for him, as Dunkerque is only a city of maybe 2,000 people. But coming from maybe the most liberal country in the world to one of the most conservative states in the U.S. was interesting for Gou.
"The transition was very interesting," Klegou said. "But I got settled in and it ended up going really well. My biggest struggle by far was my English. Listening was the hardest thing, especially when I got here right away."
But Klegou was already used to being in a place where he didn't fit in entirely. Although he is from France, Klegou attributes his identity to where he got his black skin: Africa.
"I always call myself African," Klegou said. " I grew up in France, but I am not French. I am African."
Gou, whose father was born in a small country on the West coast of Africa called Benin, said that Americans don't think about it, but racism has a very strong presence in France because of the country's history of colonization. He said that after the last French colony was liberalized in the 1960s, many Africans came to France and racism grew because of the French mentality of whites having power.
"To tell you how deeply rooted it is in France, we have a quota of black people for the French National Team in soccer," Klegou said. "In politics, our legislation has maybe three percent of black representatives. In America, there is a black President. To just have a black mayor in France would be like "Wow."
But his African heritage also gave Klegou opportunities to build his tennis career. In the summer of 2011, Gou represented Benin when he competed in the Davis Cup. He won his first singles match in the competition against Madagascar.
After getting used to the Texas culture for a bit, Klegou had to get used to the concept of collegiate tennis and playing as a team instead of as an individual.
"Tennis was an individual sport in my eyes, but playing in college, it's a team sport," Klegou said. "My first year I was eligible, I would play in matches knowing we had already clinched the team win and think 'Why am I even on the court right now?' It was a big thing I had to learn when I started playing, that you have to give your all for your team."
His sophomore year, Klegou went to the Sweet 16 with his team, where the squad lost to Baylor after having beaten the Bears three times during Big 12 conference play.
"It was exactly like what happened with the women's basketball team last year in the Elite 8," Klegou said. "We should have beaten that team. We could have beaten them any day, but that can happen in tennis."
His junior season, Klegou started playing in the four spot on the roster and finished his season with a dominating 23-2 record in singles matches. That season, the Aggies also got revenge on the Baylor Bears by claiming the Big 12 Tournament championship that was hosted in Waco, Texas.
His senior year, Klegou has taken the No. 1 spot on the Aggie rotation and is the lone Aggie ranked in the Top-25 in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association's singles rankings at No. 27 overall.
Klegou said he is excited for his team's journey this year and his opportunity to continue to grow as an Aggie.
"This year, we have a lot of talent," Klegou said. "Right now we're outside of the Top-10, but we're working hard to get back in there and I am confident we will be able to finish out the season, and my career here, very strongly."