With the UCSB’s men’s tennis team looking to extend its home winning streak to five earlier this month, the Gauchos’ co-captain Elad Stern did his best Boris Becker imitation. But substituting for a flu-stricken Nick Brotman at the No. 1 singles slot, the Israeli junior channeled the brattier side of the former German star. Stern scolded himself in his native language (Hebrew in this case), punctuating key mistakes with clenched fists of anger on a Sunday afternoon where both he and the Gauchos would go down in defeat against Georgia State. “Usually I don’t get that frustrated,” Stern said, following his 6-2, 6-4 loss.
UCSB’s oldest player owns a maturity that sits alongside a need for college-aged hijinks. A 24-year-old who once shaved off a chunk of teammate Scott Hohenstein’s hair as the freshman lay asleep the morning of a match at the University of Washington, the lefthander has also served as team co-captain for two years running, first earning the honor a year ago during just his second year with the program.
“It’s tough for a lot of guys to be athletes at a school like this,” he said. “You have schoolwork, your commitment to the team, and all the distractions socially. A lot don’t have the self-discipline. I have the opportunity to do something that very small numbers of people have, and I’m going to use it wisely.”
Stern provides a veteran presence on a team where youth dominates the key roster spots. Five of the Gauchos’ six freshmen are starters, including Santa Barbara High graduate Grant Robertson, Stern’s doubles partner. Brotman is the only other player remaining from Stern’s freshman season of 2003-04.
“Elad is responsible and childish at the same time,” freshman Carsten Thorstensen said. “The crazy things he does keep the team together. People listen to him. [Being a captain] is just a natural fit for him.”
“Outspoken” is another way to describe the Gaucho lefty. Stern takes pride in what he calls “putting everything on the table,” when it comes to speaking his mind. He’s also steadily improved his standing on the UCSB roster. A majority of his year has come at the No. 2 spot of the team’s six singles positions. As a freshman in 2004, he played mainly at No. 4 singles, going 12-1 at that spot and 19-9 overall.
“And his record this year (seven losses through his first 10 dual matches) isn’t indicative of the improvement he’s made,” head coach Marty Davis said. “Clearly, he’s our most competitive player. He lets you know what he thinks, but if his argument isn’t successful, he knows when to back down.”
On the Home Front Stern was one of Israel’s top junior players, playing as an amateur in international tournaments when most of his current teammates were just starting their teens. That competition came while he adhered to his country’s rule requiring each citizen over the age of 18 to serve in the armed forces. Stern was in the air force branch of the Israeli Defense Force for three years after he turned 18 in April 1999.
Israel’s very existence is thanks in great part to those who fought off invading armies from five Arab countries in the two-year war that followed Israel’s creation by the United Nations in 1947. Many of the combatants on the Israeli side were recent immigrants, Holocaust survivors in some cases. “They got off the boat and were handed a gun,” was how Stern put it. However, he downplays service in Israel’s air force, much of which came not in combat, but at a desk.
“I was more like an employee in an office,” he said. “Men have to serve at least three years and women at least two, but they were easy on me because I was an athlete. I did several months of basic training like everyone else. I learned how to fire an M-16, but I didn’t see any combat.”
Elad’s father, Ran Stern, fought in the 1973 Yom Kippur War between Israel and several Arab neighbors. Several close friends were killed in action during the brief conflict, an experience that motivated him in later years to encourage his son to pursue his tennis career during his own time in the military.
Were it not for those obligations, Elad Stern would have spent much time playing internationally. He was ranked on one of the top 800 doubles teams in the world, traveling to competitions as distant as India and Florida in tennis’s equivalent to the minor leagues. He and his partner were Israel’s top ranked junior doubles team.
His family’s home in Haifa is known for a historically peaceful coexistence between its Jewish and Arab citizens. What made the 2003 suicide bombing that killed 17 people in Israel’s third-largest city even more shocking for Stern was that it came on the same bus he took to school as a youngster.
“I’m not into politics. I’m still going back to Israel when I graduate,” said the mathematics major, whose grandfather immigrated to Israel from Poland before World War II. “It’s so alive there. Everyone is so outgoing when they want to have fun because they’re used to being so stressed out.”
His first contact with UCSB came via email with his current head coach. Having just led UCSB to the 2003 Big West Conference tournament championship, Davis — who receives sometimes 100 emails per week from prospective players — offered Stern a partial scholarship without even seeing him play live. Stern’s tennis résumé and accompanying video highlight film were enough to convince the coach.
Stern’s decision to come to Santa Barbara meant turning down potential tennis careers at the University of Oregon and the University of Virginia. “I can’t say that I’m sorry,” he said. “The first week I was here, I was walking around with the biggest smile I think I’ve ever had.”
And that feeling of satisfaction also applies to the Gauchos’ head coach. “I wish I had six guys like that,” Davis said.