After Carlos Cueto had a less than enjoyable experience at the University of Florida, some may have expected him to be disenchanted with college tennis or with the American college system as a whole.
However, when he joined the Cal men’s tennis team last fall, he rediscovered his love for the game. With his newfound team came a newfound outlook on competing. Instead of setting lofty goals, he prefers to just play his game to the best of his abilities and enjoy whatever he is doing.
“I don’t like having goals because if you don’t achieve those goals then you feel like you failed, but if you tried your best then I don’t think you failed,” Cueto says. “In the beginning I used to be like, ‘No, you need to get to this round or this round.’ But if you don’t get to that round, as long as you tried your best then you didn’t fail.”
Before attending Florida, Cueto was completely unaware of how tennis worked in the United States, since he was an international student.
The junior is originally from the Canary Islands; although under Spanish control, the islands are located off the northwestern coast of Africa.
At the age of 14, he left his home and moved to Madrid. Two years later he moved to Barcelona where he attended a tennis academy.
Cueto had never planned on moving to the U.S. It was the principal at the tennis academy who encouraged him to at least see what it was like.
“Every time I see him (the principal), I thank him because if it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be here,” Cueto says.
He traveled to the U.S. not knowing what to expect.
“(I went) to see how it works, because people in Spain have no idea what college sports are like in the U.S.,” Cueto says. “No idea. I just took different visits, I loved it and I went to Florida.”
Cueto was on the tennis team at Florida for two years. Freshman year, he was on fire. The international student was named Southeastern Conference (SEC) Freshman of the Year, was selected to the SEC All-Conference first team and earned a spot in the NCAA singles championships. He ended his first season ranked No. 25 in the country.
In his second year, however, things began to deteriorate for Cueto. He redshirted due to tendinitis in his hand. Even worse than his injured status was the relationship he had with the team.
“I was not happy,” Cueto says. “The team environment was not very good. I didn’t come from Spain to have problems with some guys on the team. It was not a team. It was just a bunch of guys who just played.”
Tennis is generally thought of as an individual sport, but in the eyes of Cueto, Florida took it too far. It was too individual for him.
“It was like competing against each other more than competing as a team against other guys,” Cueto says. “It was more that people cared about themselves than what the team did. It wasn’t just in tennis but it was everywhere, it was in classes, everywhere.”
So after spending two years in Gainesville, Fla., Cueto joined the Bears. Right away, he noticed a significant difference in the atmosphere surrounding tennis. The players were not playing for themselves but for the larger entity of the team.
“Coming here and being a part of a team … it’s something I’ve never been a part of, and it’s the best,” Cueto says. “I think I went from extremes, because it’s not possible how good it is here.”
Unlike at Florida, Cueto gets along with all of his teammates at Cal. The team spends a considerable amount of time together. They practice together, travel together, hang out together and some even live together in the tennis house.
“Over the course of college, you will be spending probably 80 percent of your time with these guys on the tennis team, so it’s pretty amazing that we all get along,” Cueto says. “We have been in plenty of tense situations where someone could say something to set someone else off, but it never does.”
Coach Peter Wright and the laid-back environment he has created for the team is one major reason that Cueto has enjoyed his time at Cal so much compared to Florida. Wright is interested in coaching to the team members tennis abilities but also relating to them on a personal level.
“(Wright) is always joking, all day,” Cueto says. “He is really relaxed and really nice, not just as a coach but as a person. At the end of the day that’s what you want. Who cares if you have a coach that is amazing in tennis and knows a lot and then as a person he’s not a nice guy?”
So far in preseason play, Cueto has had some ups and downs. Towards the start of the fall, he faced another injury when he sprained his ankle on one of the last balls in practice.
Fortunately for Cueto, it was not a repeat of the rather serious injury that he faced at Florida. The injury prevented him from playing in the Napa Valley tournament, but he was only out for a little over a week and recovered in time to play in the All-American Championships.
Probably his most impressive performance of the year came at the recent Northwest Regionals, where he and doubles partner sophomore Ben McLachlan won the tournament title. The win allowed them to qualify for this upcoming weekend’s prestigious ITA National Collegiate Indoor Championships.
In recent years, the Bears have only been able to send at most two people to this ultimate preseason contest, but this year, Cueto is one of four.
Cueto probably does not have any specific goals for the Indoors, but it is a feat that he even qualified, considering the competitive nature of the tournament.
Maybe his new mindset has actually aided his play, as evidenced by his Indoors berth.
As for the approaching spring season, Cueto hasn’t thought much about it. As long as he puts up his best effort, he will consider his performance successful.