‘How did I get here?’ To Princeton from Tibet, one Tennis player’s remarkable journey

His name is Fnu Nidunjianzan. Except it’s not. Because Fnu isn’t technically a name; it’s an acronym. Fnu stands for First Name Unknown, and it’s how Tibetans, who don’t follow traditional first name/surname structure, identify themselves in order to fill out pesky documents, such as US visas.

Nidunjianzan grew up playing tennis in Tibet. Or not exactly. Because there are no tennis courts in Tibet. This is partially because of the altitude. Tennis balls often deflate/explode on impact, which makes playing tennis a little tricky. Fnu goes by Top. Not because of topspin, though that would be badass. No, it’s because his older sister, Fnu Youjia, fancied a South Korean rapper, Choi Seung-hyun, who went by T.O.P. Fnu became Top and Top he remains.

Maybe one day his name will become household. Or maybe not. Tennis is a difficult business; only a tiny sample size of its athletes achieve enough to become part of the vernacular. But what Nidunjianzan already has done is extraordinary. In the 50 years since the ATP Tour started its singles ranking system, not a single player from Tibet had earned a single ranking point.

Nidunjianzan has 20 of them, and ranks 869th in the world. Sitting in a media studio built in one of the many subterranean floors of Princeton’s Jadwin Gymnasium, the 19-year-old Nidunjianzan considers his journey, which is only just beginning.

“I do wonder sometimes, how did I get here?” Nidunjianzan’s father, Nimazhaxi, is a former track and field athlete turned coach turned tourism director. He and his wife, Gasheng, believe sports provide a critical outlet for their children which, in this country, doesn’t sound terribly revolutionary.

It is outlandish in Tibet. Not until 2022 did a Tibetanborn athlete compete in the Olympics. That stems partially from a long and complicated political history in which Tibet has spent decades seeking independence from China, but also from a mindset that values white-collar jobs over sport. But Nimazhaxi saw sports as a mechanism to develop his son into a more well-rounded person, allow him to explore the concept of competition that rarely has a place in Tibet, and perhaps spread his wings beyond the country’s fairly closed borders. He didn’t push him to any one sport. Nidunjianzan visited mainland China. He tried pingpong, swimming, badminton, and eventually, very rudimentary tennis. Father and son self-selected – pingpong and badminton are practically prodigy sports in mainland China, and basketball didn’t exactly suit the vertically challenged Nidunkianzian.

That left tennis. Except for the one tiny rub: Tennis didn’t really exist in Tibet. When Nidunjianzan started hitting the ball, people would stop and stare curiously, unsure what exactly he was doing. Nimazhaxi took it upon himself to craft a rudimentary court for his son to play on. He also appointed himself his son’s coach. “He tried to teach me, but he was a track coach,” Nidunjianzan says.

“He’d tell me how tennis translates to javelin, like throwing a javelin is just like swinging a tennis racket. Um, not really.” Between that and the balls that regularly went pffffzzzzt upon impact, Nimazhaxi soon realised that tennis and Tibet wouldn’t work

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