British tennis players adjust to American life

Sunday, February 24, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 10:02 a.m. CST, Sunday, February 24, 2013
Alex Clark and Elisha Gabb laugh during a portrait session after practice at the Green Tennis Center on Tuesday afternoon. Gabb trained with teammate Alex Clark at Bisham Abbey in Marlow, England, and both moved to Columbia to play tennis for the Tigers.

COLUMBIA — If not for Alexandra Clark, Elisha Gabb would not be a Missouri Tiger.

Gabb, a London native with an England National Doubles Championship on her resume, was looking to transfer to a division one tennis program.

Multiple schools vied for her commitment. Only one could offer the opportunity to play with a fellow Londoner.   

When Gabb made her official recruiting visit to Missouri, Clark, who goes by Alex, hosted her. 

The two, who lived half an hour apart in London, met there seven years ago and immediately formed a friendship. That bond grew stronger as the became roommates at a tennis training academy in London.

With Gabb on campus for her visit, Clark discussed the ways in which Missouri’s tennis facilities trump where they trained together in London.

While this sounded promising to Gabb, the opportunity to reunite with Clark and not be the only British player on the roster is what sold her on becoming a Tiger.

Their friendship has blossomed ever since.  

Coach Sasha Schmid described the two as great, friendly competitors who keep a balance between school and athletics.

And for as close as the two have grown, Schmid sees two different people. She describes Clark as the happy-go-lucky type, a very lovable person with a constant smile on her face while Gabb is more of a joker who's incredibly witty and smart. The two play off each other to keep the mood of the team light.

“They’ve definitely got the British way about them,” Schmid said. “They’re two happy people who are great friends and it’s been great to have them here.”

Clark's presence means Gabb has someone at Missouri to assist her in facing the same challenges that Clark took on alone.    

Living in a new country, Clark had to cope with being more than 4,000 miles away from familiarity. There was a six-hour time change. She had to learn to drive from the opposite side of the car on the opposite side of the road. Classmates and teammates struggled to understand her pronunciation of words such as tomato, potato, pasta and water. The American sports scene differed from what she was familiar with.

Watching a televised NHL game recently, Clark was surprised by what she was seeing.

Clark had never watched hockey before. The game’s fast pace confused her. A fight that broke out startled her. When "Chelsea Dagger," the home team’s celebratory goal song blared through the TV, she sang along, but the tune only resonated with her due to its popularity during soccer matches in her homeland of England.

Clark was homesick during her first semester at Missouri, but she endured.

“It was awful, it was really bad,”  Clark said.

With the help of teammates, the girl with a cheerful personality overcame the challenges. A year and a half later, Clark is fully comfortable.

With Gabb also at Missouri, the two finally have what had been lacking before: Someone to relate to. 

The two have become inseparable. In addition to spending numerous hours together each day, they talk on the phone four times a day in addition to frequent Skype sessions.

“I missed home everyday and I haven’t had that since (Gabb) has been here,” Clark said, eliciting a response of “aww” from Gabb.

Ironically, the time when the two are most likely to be apart is during their matches. They are not doubles partners. Clark is paired with freshman Madison Rhyner and Gabb is paired with junior Cierra Gaytan-Leach.

“The doubles lineup we have right now is working really, really well,” Clark said. “It’d be cool if we (Clark and Gabb) played doubles though, we could be team GB (Great Britain).”

During breaks in the school year, the two travel back-and-forth from Missouri to England together, making the 10-hour-flight and two-hour drive much less challenging.

“We have fun with it (the travel) and make movies of each other,” Clark said. “It’s not as boring.”

Because of the time difference, the two can’t call home at night. Instead they call each other.

“We’re each other’s comforters,” Gabb said.

Clark’s mom visits once a semester. Gabb’s parents have not been to the U.S. yet, though. Each other’s presence has helped fill the void created by being so far from family.

And so has tea.

It’s customary in England to offer tea to visitors as a friendly gesture. And while Clark and Gabb have begrudgingly had to adjust to American foods – they say food in England is fresher and that American food feels fake because of the added salt and sugars – their mutual adoration for tea has grown while overseas.

And they drink it. A lot.  

“Tea’s comforting,” Gabb said. “It reminds us of home.”

“I asked for tea at a restaurant once, they gave me iced tea and I thought it was Diet Coke and I got really mad,” Clark said.

While their hearts will always be in London, the two have grown to adore America and plan to reside in the states after graduating.

Clark hopes to turn pro and then begin a career in strategic communications. Gabb though, would like to work for a major company such as Nike.

"There are just so many opportunities in America," Clark said. "It's so big and I've fallen in love with it."

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