Seniors Ortiz, Zhou and Nesterov begin final season at Alabama


CW / Austin Bigoney

Keegan Hinsley, Contributing Writer

As Alabama men’s tennis opens its season with a doubleheader against UAB and Chattanooga, three seniors will begin their final season in an Alabama uniform.

Seniors Edson Ortiz, Zhe Zhou, and Alexey Nesterov collectively traveled more than 13,000 miles when they arrived in Tuscaloosa and joined the team in 2016. Ortiz came from Chihuahua, Mexico, where he won five international doubles championships as a junior. Zhou hails from Tianjn, China, where he was No. 1 in the 16’s division. Nesterov is from Moscow, Russia, where he was ranked No. 150 among juniors globally. 

Coming to Alabama, though, the trio quickly became the young core of an inexperienced team. 

“We didn’t really have someone that showed us the way of college tennis,” Ortiz said. 

Under the leadership of Mazen Osama, the team’s former breakout star, they helped turn a middle-of-the-road program into a national championship qualifier. Alabama has seen back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances in 2018 and 2019, making it to the round of 16 in the former. 

Without Osama, who graduated in 2019, these seniors have embraced their new roles as leaders on a team that has become young again. 

“We’ve decided that we wanted to create a standard for what representing Alabama should be,” Ortiz said. 

The team has since focused on staying present in hectic games and prioritizing the essential minutiae of tennis. 

Along with a tradition of discipline, they’ve established a culture of unity among players of this seemingly individual sport. The team goes out to eat together and on Friday nights, they gather to play Monopoly. 

“[The team] all operates as one, but they’re not following each other. They’re leading each other,” coach George Husack said. 

That mutual leadership shows up on game day. All six courts in Baumgardner Tennis Facility are full when the team plays. Though NCAA tennis focuses on one-on-one matches, the energy on one court can turn the emotional tide for another. 

“It’s really important to keep myself up and keep supporting the other guys,” Nesterov said. “Here, tennis is a team sport.” 

Teaching that to younger players, who’ve focused on their individual careers thus far, is an important transitional step for this team. 

With two freshmen joining the roster this season, passing on that responsibility is critical to the next generation of Crimson Tide players.

“One day, freshmen are going to look at them they way they look at us,” Ortiz said, “so we want to teach them what it means to play for Alabama.”