Tim Handel may be seen as just another student athlete on NAU’s campus but he is much more than that. The nationally ranked senior tennis player came to Flagstaff from Germany, where his journey began.
It’s common for NAU to recruit international students. In fact, only three Americans make up the men’s tennis team of 10 players total.
It’s easiest to recruit domestically, but oftentimes, the prospective athletes find their way here. Prior to becoming a Lumberjack, Handel knew former teammate Felix Schumann. Schumann was a year older than Handel and is now graduated, but they knew each other from back home in Germany.
When Handel was searching for schools to attend, he had his eye on the United States. Germany does not have universities with sports programs. This is the case for most schools in foreign countries. Schumann expressed his love for Flagstaff and NAU’s tennis program, which caused him to gain interest. Former tennis head coach Ki Kroll visited Handel in Germany and created a relationship that greatly influenced Handel’s decision.
Despite his success on the team, making that transition was not easy. His freshman year, Handel went through a culture shock. One of the biggest setbacks was the language barrier. Being born and raised in Reutlinge, Germany, he knew little English and was forced to keep up. The aspect that helped him most were his teammates that were experiencing the same thing.
“It’s good to have teammates that are also foreign,” Handel said. “They shared how they got through times when they struggled and that bond really helped.”
Handel and his teammates have an honest relationship and hold one another accountable. Having to balance schoolwork with their busy travel schedule can be difficult. Handel found a system that works for him.
“This week for example, we were in San Diego, came to school for a few days and then [left] to Louisiana for another away weekend,” Handel said. “I try to get my schoolwork done while I’m here so I can focus on tennis, but sometimes it doesn’t work that way.”
Head coach Maciej Bogusz explained that his dedication to each aspect of being a student athlete has a strong influence on other players.
“He is a great example on the team and the three freshmen really look to him as a mentor,” Bogusz said. “He’s the top player on our team and has the least things to work on, but is probably doing the most.”
Someone that he frequently competes with is fellow senior teammate Ruben Montano. Montano is from Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Last season he finished ninth in Big Sky singles with a 14-7 record.
In the fall, the duo won the ITA Mountain Reigonals. After just two weekends of play in the spring season, Handel and Montano were nationally ranked No. 27 in the Oracle/ITA Division I Men’s Rankings.
“I was always very proud of him and especially his commitment to his teammates,” Kroll said. “I believe Tim will go on to do good things in his life. There is nothing more important than a strong work ethic and that is what makes him who he is.”
Handel has spent time looking ahead to see what is to come. He wishes to continue playing after graduation and see what comes of it. The next step for most college tennis players is qualifying for national challenges and continuing up the ladder that few have made it up.
Another option for him is to go home to Germany and live with his family. After he graduates with a bachelor’s degree in business, he is less worried about finding a job.
Back home, he has both of his parents who inspired his love for the sport at a young age. When Handel was around 5 years old he began playing. His mother and father grew up playing years before Handel was born.
Along with tennis, Handel played soccer growing up.
“Life got really busy and it was time to pick just one sport,” Handel said. “Honestly, I was much better at tennis. That’s why I chose it over soccer.”
Once he decided to solely dedicate his extracurricular activities to tennis, his skills improved and his love grew.
“When Tim joined the team, he fit right in with everyone, and in time became one of the team leaders,” Kroll said. “He continued to work on his game and kept getting better each year.”
His first year in college, Handel played in the No. 1 position for singles and doubles for the Lumberjacks, giving him his first All-Big Sky First Team selection. During his sophomore year, he went undefeated and was regionally ranked at 13 and was called the Unanimous All-Big Sky Most Valuable Player. Finally, he claimed the MVP award again and finished 9-0 for the Big Sky Conference in singles.
Bogusz reflected on how Handel’s presence affected the team.
“He has made an extreme impact on this team,” Bogusz said. “He’s giving the winning qualities to future generations and giving them big shoes to fill. His legacy will stay in this program for a long time.”