He’s the ‘Rudy’ of L-C tennis

Roberto Salazar finally landed a spot on Lewis-Clark State’s regular rotation in men’s tennis as a senior this season. But he had scarcely achieved this before the coronavirus pandemic struck and forced the end of the Warriors’ season.

Lewis-Clark State’s Roberto Salazar looks back on his tennis career as “a journey with many ups and downs.”

Salazar’s coach has called him the “Rudy” of Lewis-Clark State tennis, after Rudy Ruettiger, the former Notre Dame football player whose relentless determination in his quest to make the roster inspired a classic 1993 sports drama film. Like Ruettiger, Salazar embodied raw effort and hustle in practice and competition, but sometimes found himself outgunned by larger foes. Also like Ruettiger, the tenacious Salazar persisted for three years before making a breakthrough as a senior, though the coronavirus lockdown prevented him from enjoying the full fruits of his labor.

“I got started in tennis thanks to my grandfather,” said Salazar, who grew up in Toluca, Mexico. “I will always remember the day he gave me my first racquet.”

Salazar’s tennis ambitions faced an uphill battle from the start, as public support for and opportunity in the sport are limited in Mexico.

“There are no free tennis facilities, so there is no investment in tennis clinics,” he said. “Therefore, there is a lack of coaching.”

To compensate, Salazar completed his high school diploma online so that he could practice tennis six hours a day and travel around the country for tournament play. He was a nationally ranked junior in Mexico before coming to pursue his collegiate studies and tennis career in the United States. He accepted a 2016 scholarship to Lewis-Clark State, where he majored in business administration.

The move brought a new level of competition on the court, however, and Salazar did not secure a permanent spot on the active roster in his first season with the Warriors — nor his second or third. He settled for riding the bench and stepping in as an alternate when the occasion arose, never relinquishing his hope for more.

“Roberto brought an unconditional, unwavering work ethic to Warrior tennis,” coach Kai Fong said. “Every season that he did not make the lineup as a regular, he put in his time during the summer to improve. Each time he came back striving even harder. This final season, he made the breakthrough.”

That breakthrough came in February after Salazar was given the opportunity to play No. 6 singles in L-C’s encounter with the University of Idaho. On a day that saw all of his teammates fall to their Division I foes, Salazar rallied from an early deficit to provide the lone Warrior victory, defeating UI’s Alejandro Sedeno 3-6, 6-4, 10-6.

The showing earned him a promotion to the active roster that would last only a month before the coronavirus lockdown brought an end to all collegiate sports for the remainder of the semester.

“After coach Kai told us that the season was over, I really had a tough time accepting it,” Salazar said. “Mainly because I was playing my best tennis, and also because my teammates were playing so solid, which helped us to be ranked 23rd in the nation.”

Still, he had summited the peak he set out to climb, and that could not be undone.

“He played with heart,” Fong said. “He has a grind to his game. It was at times painful to see him chasing down every ball, point after point, but his relentless effort would oftentimes wear down his opponent. We just knew he was going to engage in a long match.”

Reflecting on his time at Lewis-Clark State, Salazar feels the people who surrounded him there “always helped me to bring out the best of me, in and outside the tennis court.” He intends to use his degree to find work at an international company, and ultimately to engage in outreach to “help Mexican communities and families that live in extreme poverty and poor health conditions.

“My L-C tennis career helped me to figure out that the right mindset and attitude is all it takes to be successful,” Salazar said. “... What I mean with the right mindset is that you can do anything you put your mind to; just never give up on your dreams no matter what you are going through. There are going to be tough times, but if you fall down, just get up. Everything is going to be all right. Just keep smiling.”

Wendt may be contacted at sports@lmtribune.com.

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