At the Top of His Game
The number one player on the URI men’s tennis team, Almstrom carries a heavy load on the court and in the classroom. He transferred from High Point University in North Carolina in his sophomore year, and he has managed to hold just shy of a 3.0 GPA at URI despite taking six courses a semester so he can graduate in December 2008. The spring tennis season will be his last at URI, and he hopes to improve on his 15-15 singles record of last season as well as his 21-13 record in doubles.
“My game has improved a lot since I’ve come to URI,” Almstrom says. “I have aspirations to play professionally, but it is very difficult. I would need a sponsor to invest in me, and the competition is great. I also need security, so I haven’t really decided if I want a pro career.
Some of his hesitation stems from his interest in his major field of international business. A German minor at URI, Almstrom speaks some Spanish, is fluent in both Swedish and English, and has studied French as well. “I have always been interested in languages,” he says. “I see the way the world economy is going, and I want to be involved in working with people in many countries.
“I have been affected by people from other cultures all my life. In Europe, when I was growing up, everything was changing, from German reunification to the European Community. I’m very interested in tying languages in with international business.”
As a freshman at High Point, Almstrom received an award for achieving the highest GPA among athletes. He was named Player of the Year at his high school in Sweden in 2004 and received two other awards for Good Comradeship and for Diligence and Progress in Studies. “I haven’t done as well with my grades at URI as I had hoped, but it’s difficult to hold 18 credits and play tennis,” he says. “I think I’ve done better this semester.”
Raised in Hollviken, a village of roughly 7,000 on the southwest coast of Sweden, Almstrom never gravitated towards basketball despite his height. Soccer, ice hockey, track, and tennis hold premiere standing in Sweden, and his town had soccer and tennis clubs. Tennis, it turns out, took him into the international arena.
“I started playing when I was 10 and competing when I was 12, and I loved it,” he says. “I was good at it and moved up quickly.”
Recruited for the Peter Burwash International Tennis Academy in Georgia as a 16-year-old, Almstrom came into contact with players from all over, including college athletes. That’s partly how he chose High Point. His high school coach in Hollviken also brought American college players to the town, including some from High Point, and they impressed Almstrom with the idea of getting a higher education in the United States while being able to play tennis at school.
While things didn’t work out at High Point because of Almstrom’s discomfort with the style of the coach there, a series of coincidences led him to URI. He had been dating a Rhode Islander who attended High Point, and during a holiday visit to the state in 2005, as part of his search for a new school, he decided to narrow things down to New England and New York. They narrowed even more once he met URI tennis coach Val Villucci.
“He found me,” Villucci said. “It was sort of fate. He was looking to transfer and checking out different schools. When I met him he offered to set up a match so I could watch him play. NCAA rules prohibit you from giving a tryout to a player, so he kind of took things into his own hands.
“Henrik said later that he was nervous that day, but I knew within the first minute that he was an exceptional player. He had #1 singles ability, and I could see that right off. He’s a hard worker and easy to coach. It’s a treat to have him on the team.”
With a strong serve and an aggressive game, Almstrom gives URI a lift at #1.“My footwork is my weakness,” he says. “I don’t want to have to run around on the court, but I’m working on it.”
Villucci, pleased with her top player’s work ethic, says, “He has had some significant wins for us, and I don’t think he has reached his potential yet. People don’t realize that tennis is not an easy sport to learn. You can have talent and ability, but so much of the game is mental. Henrik has to be 100 percent focused, and he probably wasn’t before he came here. He’s definitely more comfortable here; not as tense or tentative.”
Almstrom credits Villucci’s style for helping him improve. “She’s very understanding, and if you have a bad day she doesn’t get on you but helps you figure it out. She doesn’t judge you that day, and that gives you room to figure things out.”
Next fall, in his final semester at URI, Almstrom hopes to serve as an assistant coach so he can be around the team. Chances are it won’t be long before he is off to a distant locale. His girlfriend, volleyball player Ivy Zuidhof, a 2007 URI graduate, lives in Alberta, Canada. Beyond a desire to be with her, Almstrom sees himself traveling and working for a multinational business.
“I want to be part of globalization in the business world,” he says. “I have experience in Europe and in the United States, where things are very different. I think I can help people understand one another better.”
—John Pantalone ’71