For most Americans, Brazil seems like a far-off vacation destination, filled to the brim with exotic rainforests, smooth sand beaches and a non-stop party atmosphere.
But there is much more to the country than the images broadcast during the 2016 Rio Olympics. Brazil’s rich culture expands beyond the forests and coastline, enriching every inch of the world’s fifth largest country.
That is why Idaho junior tennis player Felipe Fonesca is proud to call Brazil his home.
Fonesca came to Idaho from Curitiba, Brazil, in 2014.
“It is a really different country,” Fonesca said. “I lived in a really good city near the beach. I miss being in that environment.”
Foensca said his favorite food from his hometown is picanha, a type of barbecued meat. Even though his favorite dishes are hard to find in Moscow, Fonesca said hamburgers have become his favorite alternative.
When Fonesca arrived in Moscow to begin his college career, he was the youngest player on the team at 17. He looked to older teammates for leadership.
“During my freshman year, we had a lot of seniors, but that was really helpful because they helped me a lot,” Fonesca said.
Fonesca quickly evolved into a high-caliber player capable of staying competitive against older opponents.
During his freshman year, he went 31-11, tying the school record for most wins in singles competition.
Idaho head coach Abid Akbar, who was an assistant coach during Fonesca’s early years, saw the potential in the young player.
“Even when he came as a freshman, he was playing at the top of the lineup,” Akbar said.
Akbar recognized that there is much more to Fonesca, despite his small stature.
“He’s not the biggest guy, he’s not the most intimidating guy and he’s not the strongest guy. His mind is his strongest muscle,” Akbar said.
Fonesca proved his value to the Vandals during his first two years on the team. As a sophomore, he finished 10-1 against Big Sky opponents.
The second half of his career at Idaho began with the arrival of a familiar face.
During the offseason, Idaho acquired freshman Carlos Longhi Neto from Louisville. Fonesca could not have been more excited.
Fonesca and Longhi Neto both grew up in Brazil and developed a strong friendship as children.
“I’ve known him for 10 years. We have played against each other since we were 10 and 11,” he said. “We kind of grew up playing against each other, and now we end up here playing for the same college.”
Longhi Neto went to school in Sao Paulo, 250 miles away from Curitiba. Despite the distance, the two kept in touch and never turned down a chance to face off in competitions.
“We grew up in different cities, but we get our friendship by playing together,” Fonesca said.
For Longhi Neto, the new transition to America has not been easy. The freshman said adjustments to the colder weather and different culture have been eye-opening experiences. Neverthelss, he always has his good friend to help him through, whether that be on the court, in the classroom or at home.
“He’s very consistent,” Longhi Neto said. “It’s very hard to play against him. As a person, he’s a very good friend.”
Their friendly rivalry is often seen during practice.
Akbar said the duo’s banter creates a comfortable, relaxed atmosphere for the other players.
“It’s really healthy,” Akbar said. “Whenever they’re on the court during their sets, I can see it. They’re fired up and still talk about their records. As friends, they get along so well. It’s really good for them to push each other.”
The companionship can be seen after practices. The team chats about who can beat who in the FIFA video game and where they should go out to eat over the weekend.
Fonesca has come a long way from his days as the younger player on the court.
At the start of the 2016 fall season, Idaho had no seniors on the roster and six underclassmen, four of which are freshman. Fonesca now plays as one of the most experienced on the team.
He said he tries to emulate the senior leaders from his freshman year.
“Now that I have this experience, I try to do what they did by helping the guys with everything I can to help them feel good about being here,” Fonesca said.
Fonesca stays out of the spotlight and is more content with helping his teammates behind the scenes.
Akbar said that he keeps to himself and is not one to get the others fired up before a game. Instead, he stays focused and lets his game do the talking.
“He’s one of the quieter ones,” Akbar said. “He’s not the most talkative. I’d say he’s very passionate about his soccer team. Coming from Brazil, he really gets into arguments when soccer comes up. Otherwise, he’s the one who listens and laughs most of the time.”
Fonesca said tennis is his greatest passion. The sport gave him a best friend, a clear direction during college and hopefully future career opportunities.
“I want to get a job, especially in the area of tennis,” he said. “I really enjoy the sport. Being in this environment is what I want.”
Brandon Hill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @brandonmtnhill