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Thursday April 19, 2012Finish Strong: Slilam Striving to End Gators Career with Postseason Push

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – This part of Nassim Slilam’s journey is about to end.

He’ll start another stage of life soon, but for now, the final stretch of his college career is where Slilam is trying to maintain his focus.

This part of his voyage took off when Slilam blossomed into one of the most decorated junior tennis players in France a decade ago. Gators men’s tennis coach Andy Jackson recalls first seeing Slilam play at the French Open when Slilam was still in high school. He had heard of the young French phenom well before then.

“He was one of the ones on the major fast track,’’ Jackson said.

Still, as he often does to this day, the 22-year-old Slilam had a different vision than some of those around him.

The expectations back home that Slilam would one day become a big-name professional tennis player were tapered in his own mind with the understanding of what that really took. The grueling hours of practice. The isolation of the road. The constant financial challenges until you prove you belong.

“They guys you see on TV making a living in tennis, they all really want to play,’’ he said. “If you hesitate, there is no place for you.”

Not ready to embark on the long-shot life of a professional player, Slilam instead opted to come to America and attend UF. He could still play tennis but get an education as well. An advisor suggested he study economics, and Slilam, who didn’t expect to stay long enough to graduate when he arrived in January 2010, is scheduled to earn his degree next month.

Slilam spoke thoughtfully about his tennis trek – and the potential final chapter that starts at this week’s SEC Tournament – while sitting outside UF’s Ring Tennis Complex. During Slilam’s conversation with a visitor, Florida assistant coach Jeremy Bayon walked by and patted Slilam on the back in a supportive exchange between fellow countrymen.

Bayon, a Frenchman like Slilam, was one of the reasons Slilam made the trek to UF. So were former teammates Antoine Benneteau and Alexandre Lacroix, also part of the French Connection that Jackson has tapped into to fill his rosters.

But Jackson, a longtime head coach in the SEC at Mississippi State and Florida, admits Slilam is different than the rest.

“He has a superior level of talent,’’ Jackson said. “For an international kid, he would probably be in my 28 years [of coaching] the highest [touted player] that I’ve ever had. He was at a very high level in France when he was 14, 15, 16.”

Coaching Slilam is also different. Jackson has used many techniques to reach the fiercely independent Parisian. One of Jackson’s most beneficial resources has been former Gators women’s tennis standout Marrit Boonstra.

Boonstra and Slilam became close friends and romantically involved shortly after Slilam arrived. They plan to move back to Europe this summer together – Boonstra came to UF from the Netherlands – and begin pursuing Master’s degrees.

If Jackson sees Slilam not responding to his voice, he’ll meet up with Boonstra for a cup of coffee and some advice.

“She is somebody that I trust not only as a person, but as a tennis player. Sometimes when you talk to mom, dad, girlfriend, you are talking Chinese because they don’t understand tennis,’’ Jackson said. “This girl is a world-class player. She understands Florida, she understands tennis, she understands Nassim.”

Boonstra has kept close to the game since finishing at UF by working as an instructor at a Gainesville tennis club.

When Jackson calls to chat, she understands why.

“Nassim is not an easy player to coach,’’ she said. “I help him a little bit in how he should approach [Nassim] because it’s not the normal way. He’s a complicated person. When a player listens very good, it’s easy to coach, but when a player is thinking about a thousand other things, it’s not easy to get through.”

In his final season, Slilam appears to be turning on the tunnel vision at the right time. After a shaky stretch in midseason when he lost five of seven matches, Slilam went 7-1 in SEC play, playing primarily at No. 2 singles. He enters the SEC Tournament with a 66-28 career singles record – 21-12 this season -- and anchors the Gators’ No. 1 doubles team with Billy Federhofer.

Like Jackson, Slilam credits Boonstra for helping him stay grounded.

“She is my biggest discovery here,’’ Slilam said.

Slilam’s shining moment at UF came in last season’s SEC Tournament when the host Gators beat Kentucky in the final to win their first league tournament title in six years, becoming the first team in 15 years to claim the championship without a first-round bye.

Slilam clinched the victory when he beat Kentucky’s Brad Cox at No. 3 singles, overcoming a 6-3 loss in the first set to take the final two sets: 6-4, 6-3. It was the kind of performance from Slilam that prompts Jackson to lean on Boonstra from time to time for direction.

“He’s a leader of our team,’’ Jackson said. “It’s not that he is perfect or that we expect him to be perfect, but it’s not something that he was capable of doing two and a half years ago. He has really come a long way on and off the court.”

Slilam acknowledges that he had a lot of growing to do as a person and player when he first got to UF. He continues to strive to be better at both, trying to enjoy the final stretch of what could be the end of his tennis career since he is uncertain if he wants to continue playing after this season.

“I’m the kind of guy that when I don’t feel something, I don’t do it,’’ he said. “I’m trying to be a good teammate and be a good leader. I don’t really think about my tennis future. I’m having fun. I just live in the present and if I feel like I have to play tennis next year, I’ll keep playing. If I don’t then I’ll do something else.

“That’s the beauty – and why I came here. I wanted to have other options.”

Unlike a year ago, Florida (14-8, 7-4 in SEC) has a first-round bye in the SEC Tournament set to start on Thursday at Mississippi State. The No. 4-seed Gators face the Arkansas-Ole Miss winner on Friday at 6 p.m. ET.

Slilam will play a major role if the Gators repeat. Jackson senses Slilam might have another special moment ahead.

“It’s not over yet,’’ Jackson said. “I think he still might find an extra gear here at the last which is what we are looking for that might put us over the top.”

A player who thrives off his serve and playing along the baseline, Slilam’s natural gifts have never wavered. Jackson sometimes worries Slilam he has too many weapons at his disposal.

Slilam knows what Jackson is talking about.

“Tennis for me is really tricky,’’ Slilam said. “I feel like I can do so many things on the court. Sometimes I get confused. I don’t want to do too much, too little.”

If Slilam discovers the right combination, the final leg of his UF journey might include a trophy. One he could show everyone back home this summer.


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