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
“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
“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
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.