Advantage: Ismail brothers

Tariq Ismail, of Youngstown State University, and Roberto Cabrini, of Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, are the first-ranked players on their respective tennis teams. Facing off in an intense singles match, Tariq hammered a cross-court forehand shot past Cabrini.

Tariq yelped in celebration. Cabrini shouted angrily in Portuguese. The moment was tense.

“Let’s see that fist pump, ‘T,'” Zeeshan Ismail yelled, only to receive a glare from his older brother.

Moments like this exemplify why Tariq said Zeeshan, his brother and teammate, is “a clown.”

“Oh, he’s mean,” Zeeshan said in response to Tariq’s comment. “That’s older brother talk, I guess.”

Tariq is a senior; Zeeshan, a sophomore. Known simply as “T” and “Z,” respectively, on the YSU tennis team, the brothers are happy to compete together.

“It’s been fun being on the same team and traveling together,” Zeeshan said.

“It’s a good experience, and I’m real happy we get to share it with each other,” Tariq said. “[YSU] has been good to us.”

In Youngstown, Tariq and Zeeshan are approximately 8,000 miles from their home of Harare, Zimbabwe. Besides the many potholes, Harare and Youngstown do not have much in common, the brothers said.

“It’s a lot different here,” Zeeshan said.

“The weather’s real nice,” Tariq said of his hometown, which is nicknamed “The Sunshine City.” “Our government has a lot of problems at the moment, a lot of economic problems.”

Every December, Tariq and Zeeshan visit Harare for a month. Although life in the U.S. has been good, Zeeshan said he does miss home.

“I miss my friends. I’ve had a lot of fun experiences in Harare, and when I go back in December, I really enjoy it,” Zeeshan said.

The December trip provides them with an opportunity to visit their parents, Haroon and Airba Ismail; Tariq and Zeeshan see them only twice a year. Haroon Ismail, Tariq said, is the reason he — and other family members — play tennis.

“He was our coach,” Tariq said about his father.

Cousins Safiyya Ismail (University of Cincinnati) and Ra’ees Ismail (Xavier University) also play tennis. But it doesn’t end there for the Ismail family. Imran Ismail, Tariq and Zeeshan’s brother, and Ali Ismail, their uncle, play, too.

Haroon Ismail competed professionally after playing tennis at Southern Methodist University. He reached his highest professional ranking (95th) in 1982 and competed in the French and Dutch opens.

“That’s amazing,” Zeeshan said of his father’s accomplishments. “Hopefully, I can get to that point one day.”

While Zeeshan has a long way to go, head men’s tennis coach Mark Klysner said the sophomore is the team’s most improved player.

“The biggest thing is, he’s willing to learn and wants to get better,” Klysner said.

“He’s got a good forehand,” Tariq said of his brother. “He’s pretty fast and hits a lot of balls back.”

“I like to dominate with my forehand, crowd the net and finish strong,” Zeeshan said.

Tariq said Zeeshan has more talent, but Klysner wants Zeeshan’s mental toughness to improve.

“You can tell his youth. He’s not as mentally tough as Tariq,” Klysner said.

Tariq, who is battling a lower back injury, showed his mental toughness against Cabrini.

When Tariq scored, he was composed. When Cabrini scored, Tariq would collect himself with pep talks. With his emotions under control, Tariq eventually defeated the large Brazilian.

“[Tariq] fights like no other,” Klysner said. “I know he’ll always give me his best effort. He believes he can beat anybody at any given time.”

“I think I have a pretty solid all-around game,” Tariq said. “I have a decent forehand, and a pretty good backhand, which is probably my better shot. I think I’m just real smart.”

These characteristics are why Klysner named Tariq the team’s captain.

“He’s definitely the go-to guy for leadership on the team,” Klysner said. “He’s probably one of the best players YSU tennis has had.”

If not for an injury, Tariq and Zeeshan wouldn’t have attended YSU. Originally a University of Arkansas recruit, Tariq suffered a torn patella tendon in his knee during his freshman year. He couldn’t play tennis for a year and a half.

“I wanted somewhere new to go,” Tariq said. “I needed a place with a lot of scholarships, and Youngstown State was that place.”

For Zeeshan, his college choice was a no-brainer.

“My brother told the coach I was all right. [Tariq] pretty much made me come here,” Zeeshan said.

The brothers’ days together on the YSU tennis team are winding down. Playing in his final season, Tariq is beginning to think about his future.

“I have one more semester to do student teaching. I’ll definitely be here in the fall,” said Tariq, an integrated sciences education major.

And while Tariq is open to assisting Klysner in the fall as a coach, Tariq is ready for the summer.

“My plan is to play tennis this summer on the pro circuit,” he said. “But eventually I’ll be teaching high school sciences and hopefully coaching tennis at the college level.”

With plenty of time left at YSU, Zeeshan hasn’t thought much about his future.

“I just hope to develop my tennis game more and see how far I can go with that,” Zeeshan said. “Also, I’m studying mechanical engineering, so hopefully I’ll be able to graduate with that.”

In the meantime, Klysner will continue to enjoy coaching the Ismail duo.

“I love having them around. It’s a cliche, but they’re a coach’s dream,” he said.