Not many Penn athletes can say they spent time in the pros before putting on the Red and Blue for the Quakers. In fact, perhaps none besides freshman tennis player Dmitry Shatalin boast that honor.
Shatalin grew up in Moscow, playing tennis competitively from an early age. As a teenager, he competed in ATP Tour Challengers and other tournaments on the pro circuit.
Until he got injured that is.
It was at that point that his parents decided college might be a better option for him, so he could continue his tennis career as well as his studies.
After visiting Penn during his senior year, Shatalin knew it was the school for him.
“I came here, and I loved the coach, loved the boys, loved the school,” he said.
However, despite applying to Penn and being accepted early decision, his journey since arriving in Philly has been anything but smooth, a big part of which can be attributed to stringent NCAA eligibility rules.
When Shatalin was touring on the pro circuit before deciding to pursue collegiate tennis, he had signed a sponsorship deal with Nike and received financial aid from the sports company as well.
The move was considered a violation of NCAA rules. And as a result the NCAA demanded he sit out for the beginning of this season and pay some of the compensation he received from Nike to charity. While Shatalin says he was happy to donate the money, sitting out while everyone on the team played was challenging for the young Russian.
“It was really difficult because in the beginning of the year I saw guys playing matches, and I was kind of part of the team, but not really because I couldn’t represent Penn tennis,” he said.
“It was really tough to wait and to practice because it kind of felt like I was practicing for nothing.”
Despite being discouraged initially, Shatalin soon realized he had to look at the big picture.
“I think that was the wrong mentality,” he said. “Never do that. It’s always important to be giving 100 percent no matter what.”
Soon, Shatalin was able to play again and represent the Quakers on the court. However, before long, he faced another setback, falling on his wrist and ending up in a cast.
“It’s been a slow process, and he’s been really unlucky,” coach David Geatz said. “But he’s been playing better and better, and he’s a great kid.”
Perhaps adding to his difficult transition to college is the fact that Shatalin was only 16 years old when he was accepted to Penn. Now 17, Shatalin has to balance his rigorous tennis training with an equally challenging degree in electrical engineering.
And yet, despite his young age and challenging schedule, Geatz believes he is capable of performing well, both on the tennis court and in the classroom.
“He is a very mature 17 year old. ... He is really coming on [after a tough fall semester].”
A glimpse of Shatalin’s hard work on the court appeared last weekend as he and senior Blaine Willembourg won their doubles matches against both Yale and Brown, helping Penn secure the all-important doubles point and go on to win both matches.
“It’s been a tough journey, and this past weekend was my first actually healthy match, and we did really well, so I’m proud of the boys,” Shatalin said.
Looking toward this weekend’s matches at Harvard and Dartmouth — two tough teams that finished tied for second in the Ivy League last year — the Red and Blue hope to keep up the momentum from sophomore Josh Pompan’s incredible comeback against Brown last weekend, which secured the victory against the Bears.
For better or worse, the opponents this weekend will be familiar faces. The Quakers fell to Harvard, 5-2, and narrowly beat the Big Green, 4-3, earlier this season in the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference Tournament. While Shatalin lost his matches in both, he is certainly in a better place health-wise for this weekend.
As for whether he will continue to play doubles or move to the singles lineup as he improves, that remains to be seen.
“He is one of the most physically gifted, talented guys in the whole league,” Geatz said. “He’s a great doubles player. ... He would have played singles too if he had been eligible from the very start.”
Most importantly, Shatalin will be there for his team regardless of the lineup.
“He has great team spirit. He is always the first guy to cheer his teammates on.”
And this weekend, as the Quakers look to remain perfect in regular season conference play, they could certainly use both Shatalin’s play on the court and his enthusiasm off of it.
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