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April 18, 2013

Baltic brothers from different mothers

Tennis duo’s dynamics lead to record accomplishments

By Patrick Elder

Niklas Jonsson and Ali Shabib

On a day when the sun is fickle and the temperature with it, the sounds of tennis could be heard from under the shadow of Rhodes Tower — the soft scrape of shoes on composite, the taut thwack of ball on racket followed by the rattle of the chain link fence from a passed ball. Accompanying that rattle, a loud curse.

Or at least, an assumed curse.

The words, which sprung from the mouth of sophomore tennis player Ali Shabib, were presumably in Danish, his country of origin. A few words in English from his doubles partner and Baltic brother from another mother, Swedish sophomore Niklas Jonsson, visibly soothe his frustration. When Shabib’s coach chastises him for not getting to the ball, Shabib pats his belly and says, “I’m too fat.”

As part of only the sixth men’s doubles team at Cleveland State University to notch 20 wins in a single season, he’s anything but. The pair of Shabib and Johnsson would go on to beat their opponents from Valparaiso 8-3, overcoming their early troubles through teamwork and determination while improving their record to 22-5 overall and a perfect 5-0 in league play.

“Sometimes I get mad on the court and he says to me, ‘Come on Ali, grow up and let’s play,’ and I understand him,” Shabib said. “He always knows exactly how I feel. When I’m mad or irritated or I’m happy, he knows exactly what I want when on the court, the moment I want it. We’re so close to each other, and that’s why we’re a good team.”

Shabib is the firebrand foil to Jonsson’s stoic stalwart. Their opposing natures make them the perfect pair.

“He always gets me up, and has a fire,” Jonsson said. “He always pushes me a little bit harder.

“We fight all the time. We never want to lose to anyone. We’re pretty aggressive, which is good in doubles. It’s always one of us that plays good. If one of us is down, we lift each other up. “

They both started their tennis careers at young ages, playing in the club and individual circuits in their native countries. Shabib began his athletic career as a gymnast, but that didn’t last for long. Shabib knew he had to make the change when he became aware of a big problem for any prepubescent boy.

“In my young age I said to my dad, ‘Dad, there’s too many girls,’” Shabib said. “He told me I would regret it. I don’t think I do.”

Any regret over the change likely flew out the window when Shabib was ranked as the top player under 16 in Denmark. After hearing good things about the tennis program at Cleveland State, he had to meet the coach to see if this school was the right fit for him.

“It was very important for me that I like the coach here,” Shabib said. “Of course it’s about the tennis, but it’s not only that. It’s about the social part, having a good time. Especially when you’re so far away from home, you have another father kind of. And he’s definitely been that.”

When head coach Brian Etzkin paired the two up as doubles partners in the fall the duo clicked almost instantly.

“In the fall, I mix up a lot of different combinations,” Etzkin said. “They played together once and looked really good, so we kept them together. Then they won a tournament or two. Then they beat a nationally ranked team. So we left them together and they’ve become better together. And they’re getting better still.”

Even with the early success, Etzkin didn’t expect the degree to which the two succeeded and continue to succeed.

“It’s hard to know for sure,” Etzkin said. “We’ve always had good doubles teams here, and they definitely have the skills to do it. But also they have to connect with each other and complement each other, and they do. I don’t know if I thought they’d be 22-5, but I thought they’d have a good chance to do well.”

The players themselves didn’t even know they were approaching an historic accomplishment until the record was set.

“It’s a big honor, really,” Jonsson said. “I never thought about it until when I heard it last week. We’re just going to keep pushing ourselves to get even better.”