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From Tibet to Princeton: A Tennis Player’s Extraordinary Journey

Top Nidunjianzan

Princeton, N.J. —

His name is Fnu Nidunjianzan. Except it’s not. Because Fnu isn’t technically a name; it’s an acronym. Fnu stands for First Name Unknown, and it’s how Tibetans, who don’t follow traditional first name/surname structure, identify themselves in order to fill out pesky documents, such as U.S. visas.

Nidunjianzan grew up playing tennis in Tibet. Or not exactly. Because there are no tennis courts in Tibet. This is partially because of the altitude. Tennis balls often deflate/explode on impact, which makes playing tennis a little tricky.

Fnu goes by Top. Not because of topspin, though that would be badass. No, it’s because his older sister, Fnu Youjia, fancied a South Korean rapper, Choi Seung-hyun, who went by T.O.P.

Maybe one day his name will become household. Or maybe not. Tennis is a difficult business; only a tiny sample size of its athletes achieve enough to become part of the vernacular. But what Nidunjianzan already has done is extraordinary.

In the 50 years since the ATP Tour started its singles ranking system, not a single player from Tibet had earned a single ranking point. Nidunjianzan has 20 of them, and ranks 869th in the world.

Sitting in a media studio built in one of the many subterranean floors of Princeton’s Jadwin Gymnasium, the 19-year-old Nidunjianzan considers his journey, which is only just beginning. “I do wonder sometimes, how did I get here?”

Nidunjianzan’s father, Nimazhaxi, is a former track and field athlete turned coach turned tourism director. He and his wife, Gasheng, believe sports provide a critical outlet for their children which, in this country, doesn’t sound terribly revolutionary. It is outlandish in Tibet. Not until 2022 did a Tibetan-born athlete compete in the Olympics.

That stems partially from a long and complicated political history in which Tibet has spent decades seeking independence from China, but also from a mindset that values white-collar jobs over sport.

But Nimazhaxi saw sports as a mechanism to develop his son into a more well-rounded person, allow him to explore the concept of competition that rarely has a place in Tibet, and perhaps spread his wings beyond the region’s fairly closed borders. He didn’t push him to any one sport. Nidunjianzan visited mainland China. He tried pingpong, swimming, badminton, and eventually, very rudimentary tennis.

Except for the one tiny rub: Tennis didn’t really exist in Tibet. When Nidunjianzan started hitting the ball, people would stop and stare curiously, unsure what exactly he was doing. Nimazhaxi took it upon himself to craft a rudimentary court for his son to play on.

He also appointed himself his son’s coach. “He tried to teach me, but he was a track coach,” Nidunjianzan says. “He’d tell me how tennis translates to javelin, like throwing a javelin is just like swinging a tennis racket. Um, not really.”

When most people think of Tibet, they think of Mount Everest, located in the Himalayan sliver between Tibet and Nepal on the region’s western border. Nidunjianzan grew up in the capital city of Lhasa, on the other side of the region, neighboring China. It was there that Nidunjianzan and his mother relocated – to Chengdu, some 1,200 miles from home.

Tennis was then and remains still a growing sport in China. Li Na became the first Chinese athlete to win a Grand Slam title when she won the French Open in 2011. But it was lightyears ahead of Tibet, and afforded the 6-year-old Nidunjianzan, who played at the Chengdu City Club, a chance to practice alongside players as old as 17.

By good fortune, Timmy Allin arrived in Chengdu around the same time as Nidunjianzan relocated there. Born and raised in Texas, Allin played tennis at the University of Utah. A three-time All Mountain West scholar-athlete, he was awarded a fifth-year academic scholarship to study Chinese at any university in China.

He chose Chengdu and while studying, he also coached tennis on the side. He met Nidunjianzan in 2011 when the family sought out Western coaches to improve his game. Allin long has been struck by the singularity of focus for children in China.

“Your path is pretty much chosen,” he says. “You will go to school sometimes, and play tennis a lot.” That, however, didn’t necessarily create great tennis players, in Allin’s opinion. The sport requires technique and skill, but also thrives off of creativity and the ability to adjust on the fly.

The fundamentals-driven approach in China didn’t allow that side of the game to flourish. “What I’ve found is, the kids who stay in China tend to be more one-dimensional,” Allin says. “They could hit a wall for hours, play on the baseline, but it was almost robotic.”

Allin encouraged Nidunjianzan, who he thought had real talent, to broaden his horizons and invited him to his home in Dallas. He helped Nidunjianzan and his mother work through the paperwork of getting a tourist Visa.

Nidunjianzan’s mother mistakenly told a U.S. customs officer she intended to stay for three hours when she meant three months – and set them up with a place to stay and introduced them to American food. Nidunjianzan was wide-eyed at the various ethnicities and cultures in America and that, coupled with the tennis instruction, pushed him and his family to seek out a more permanent U.S. home.

They landed on IMG Academy, which, before it became an all-sports behemoth, was founded by Nick Bolletieri as a tennis academy in Bradenton, Fla. Nidunjianzan arrived as an 8-year-old, granted an exception to enroll before the typical admissions age of 10.

Nidunjianzan and his mother moved into an apartment right next to the courts. In the mornings, he woke to the sound of tennis balls ricocheting around the court, and often a view of a pro – Maria Sharapova, Sebastian Korda, Denis Shapovalov – practicing. For a kid raised in a country without even a court, it felt like some sort of tennis paradise.

Most days, Nidunjianzan practiced two hours with other athletes, and then spent an additional hour with private coaching from Pat Harrison, who ran the pro division. In between he worked with tutors to improve his English and attended classes.

Nidunjianzan’s sister flew to Florida – she was attending college in Boston at the time – to help with grocery shopping and other mundane chores, but much of the day-to-day life navigation was left to Nidunjianzan.

The pair would go months without returning to Tibet, which meant months apart for Nidunjianzan from his father, and Gasheng from her husband. Strangely, the sacrifice contributed to Nidunjianzan’s success as a tennis player. There is no place to hide on a tennis court, no teammate to blame, or coach to offer a bailout.

“Some people crack, some stay the same and some have an ability to elevate under pressure,’’ Harrison says. “Top always had an aptitude for handling pressure situations.”

Yet Nidunjianzan also carried that pressure with him. Though his parents never forced him to do anything, there is an implied expectation with cleaving a family in two and moving across the world to pursue tennis.

At one point, Nidunjianzan felt it. The wins weren’t coming with the rapidity to which he’d grown accustomed, and he knew he needed a reset. “I had to stop and think. There’s more to life than just tennis, and I can’t put everything into it,” he says.

Opting for one of the nation’s best academic institutions might seem counterintuitive to alleviating pressure. To Nidunjianzan, heading to Princeton made perfect sense. Well, at least once he decided he’d be going to college.

At IMG there are essentially two tracks – turn pro or go to college. For years, Nidunjianzan was on the first track, with plans to become a prodigy teenager on tour.


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