The following is sixth in a series about former BPS athletes currently playing their sport in college.
Unlike some children he grew up with in Albania, Eglis Bizhoti always had food on the table and shoes on his feet. One luxury the son of an economist and school teacher never had in Albania, however, was a tennis racket. In fact, he didn't even know what a tennis racket was.
But after his family first immigrated to Dorchester in 2005 when he was 15-years-old, Bizhoti got the chance to first swing a tennis racket. And it wasn't long before he could hardly be found without his own racket as he walked the halls of Another Course to College High School in Brighton before graduating in 2010.
“When I moved here I did not know any English, I never saw a tennis court before I came to the States, I never had any experience at all,” said Bizhoti, who tagged along with his neighbor to a free summer tennis enrichment program called Tenacity two weeks after he first arrived. “Before [I joined Tenacity] I was going to the park and I asked people if I could play and they said ‘no,’ they were really snobby and rude. I said ‘come on, let me try?’
“The first time I whiffed and the second time I hit better. I just liked it. ‘This looks cool.’ Like something I could do. I had no money. We came here with pretty much zero, negative. My parents couldn’t afford anything.”
This past spring the boy who played five hours of tennis as a member of the cooped Latin Academy tennis team was a junior on the UMass Boston tennis team that recorded its best season in program history. Bizhoti played a crucial role on the team as the Beacons clinched their first Little East Conference championship in 23 years. That title also clinched the program’s first trip to the Division 3 NCAA Tournament.
UMass Boston trailed defending conference champ, UMass Dartmouth, with the final two singles matches left in the conference tournament on May 4. Moments after Bizhoti tied the contest at 4-4 by winning his No. 6 singles match in straight sets, his teammate Alex Loyer won his No. 3 singles match to give the Beacons the conference championship.
“It was amazing going to the NCAAs for the first time in school history and for myself,” Bizhotti said. “You always want to go to the NCAAs, which was one of the goals I had for playing college tennis.
“Being on a winning team is always awesome. Who doesn’t like to win? It was also with local kids I knew for a long time so to do it with them was also special to be on the same court as them.”
UMass Boston ultimately lost to Skidmore College in the First Round of its NCAA Tournament debut but head coach Eric Berg said he has almost his entire squad returning from last year’s 14-4 campaign. And he’s looking for Bizhotti to be an even bigger leader than he was last season.
“He definitely came through in the clutch,” Berg said of Bizhotti. “Eglis has the potential to be a very good leader. He’s vocal and everyone knows he cares a lot about the team. This he year he played lower than he thought he would in the lineup. I expect him to come into the fall with a little more urgency, knowing it’s his senior year.
“He does play well against the better players. If he’s higher in the lineup I think he’ll do well.”
Bizhotti owes a lot of his success on and off the tennis court to Tenacity, the tennis enrichment program he joined on a lark seven years ago because his neighbor invited him. But after his first summer in the program ended, Bizhotti said his family moved back to Albania because they weren’t adjusting to their new environment well. This was despite the fact that they won a lottery that gave them the green cards and social security numbers to move to the United States.
After the family decided to move back to the United States in September 2006, Bizhotti and his sister enrolled in Another Course to College. He caught onto English quickly but Bizhotti still struggled in school while his sister, Alba, thrived academically. He got As in math his first two years because he said it’s a “universal language” but he got Ds and Fs in every other course and was told that he might have to leave the school.
He started to work harder his junior year and made the honor roll his senior year.
“I went to school at 5 a.m. to type a 500 word essay,” he said. “Now I’m just happy I just got through that.”
In addition to working at Tenacity and the Stillman Tennis Center in Charlestown as an instructor, he also worked at Shaw’s and contributed $500 a month to supplement the income of his parents, Niko and Vasilika, who both work low-wage jobs at Logan International Airport.
But tennis was not only his rock and it provided role models for him.
“It’s a sport where individually you learn a lot about yourself and you learn how to deal with adversity,” he said. “So tennis really kind of put me in that environment that gave me examples to follow.”
Bizhotti started to get good too.
He volunteered at a tennis program for middle school kids at Harvard and he also played a ton of tennis with the staff there too. He made friends who played for the Latin Academy tennis team and they told him he should join. Before he graduated form high school in 2010, Bizhotti was a two-year captain of the Latin Academy tennis team and a four-year All-Star.
He played his first two seasons of college tennis at Salem State before he transferred to UMass Boston because the coast of room and board in Salem was too taxing on his family, which lives next to the UMass Boston campus.
“I’m really proud of what Eglis has achieved, he’s an impressive young man,” Latin Academy coach Andy Crane said. “He honors his father and mother.”
Bizhotti’s parents work so much at the airport that they’ve only been able to get away to watch one of his college matches at MIT when he played for Salem State.
Bizhotti, who is working at City Sports and Tenacity’s Boston Common site this summer, hopes to play No. 3 singles or higher for the Beacons during his senior year.
The economics major is thinking about studying finance during his senior year and isn’t sure what he wants to do after graduated other than that he wants to make enough money to give his parents some relief.
“I just want him to get two days off, he’s a guy who likes working but he needs rest as well,” Bizhotti said of his father. “I think we’ve come a long way from where we started and there ‘s going to be more things to climb — like anything.”
There’s no doubt he’ll follow the advice he gives to his tennis students on the rest of his own climb.
“‘Constantly ask questions about yourself,’” he said. “‘What can I do to improve?’”
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- Justin A. Rice -- A metro Detroit native, Rice is a Michigan State University (Go Spartans!) and Northeastern University graduate. Rice lives in the South End with his dog and wife, who unfortunately attended the University of Michigan ... his wife, that is. He curates the BPS Sports Blog and is always looking to write about city athletes with great stories. Have an idea? He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeJustinRice or @BPSspts.
- Ryan Butler -- A Rhode Island native and avid Boston sports fan, Butler played basketball, baseball and football throughout his time in Barrington Public Schools. Now currently in his middler year at Northeastern University, he joins Boston.com as a correspondent for the site's BPS coverage. Have a story idea? Contact him at email@example.com. Follow him on his Twitter @butler_globe.