ROCKFORD, Ill. (BVM) — Belen Nevenhoven may soon be heading west to play college tennis. But she leaves Illinois as one of the best tennis players to compete in the state over the last few years, and arguably the best player to ever come out of the Rockford, Ill. area.
Nevenhoven’s incredible success on the tennis court should come as no surprise to those who know her family background in the sport. Although she played several other sports growing up, tennis was always her destiny.
“Tennis was kind of a family thing,” Nevenhoven said. “I was always on the court and just always surrounded by tennis.”
Nevenhoven’s grandfather was at the head of the family’s success. Immigrating from the Philippines, he taught each of his five daughters how to play tennis, hoping they could go on to play in college.
“He got them into tennis and basically just taught himself everything he could about tennis,” Nevenhoven said. “He ended up teaching my mom and her four sisters. All of them ended up going to DI colleges.”
The game and talent has since been passed down to the next generation. Not only has Nevenhoven become an elite talent thanks to the tutelage of both her grandfather and her mom, Cindy, but her brother, Quinten, also currently plays in college at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
“My mom became a tennis coach and she would always teach us,” Belen said. “Whenever my grandpa was with us he would always teach us. I’ve learned a bunch from them and I’d say one of my biggest inspirations is my grandpa. I’ve learned a lot of determination and just not to give up on anything.”
Playing since she was 4 years old, Belen will soon follow in her brother’s footsteps and achieve one of her lifelong dreams by playing college tennis. However, the process to get there was not always easy.
As a four-star player and top-100 recruit throughout her high school career by tennisrecruiting.com, it seemed as Belen would have no problem finding a home to play tennis at the next level. However, thanks to limited recruiting caused by the pandemic, it was a struggle for the 18-year-old.
“The recruiting process was already really hard to start,” Belen mentioned. “I already knew going into it, it would be pretty difficult but I was pretty confident I would be able to find a spot. Before Covid, I was on the exact track that I wanted, but when it hit, it got a lot tougher. I couldn’t play and couldn’t get my rankings up. On the small chance that I could play, coaches couldn’t even come and watch you.
“I basically lost all contacts that I was talking to as Covid went from a two-week thing to a five-month thing. It was hard to keep in touch with them and for them to take a chance on me. I think I got told no from 15 colleges or that they didn’t have spots anymore.”
By this past March, Belen was still not committed, creating unease. She could have opted to go to a smaller school, or perhaps join her brother at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. However, playing at a Division I, Power 5 school was always Belen’s mindset.
“I did have a bunch of smaller schools contacting me and I did have full ride scholarship offers from smaller schools,” Belen said. “Ever since I was little and knew I wanted to play college tennis, I was very set on going to a big school in a Power 5 conference. Even though that probably made my recruiting process much harder, I knew I wouldn’t be happy if I settled for a smaller school.”
Finally, Belen’s opportunity came, as she was offered a preferred walk-on opportunity at the University of Arizona. A Power 5 school and also a warm-weather campus created a perfect match for the tennis star.
“Again, I wanted to go to a big school and have that challenge, even if it meant I didn’t play the first two years,” Belen added. “It just so happened that Arizona was willing to take me and they just checked all of my boxes. Arizona was in my top-five from the start.”
While the chance to become a DI athlete fulfills a lifelong goal for Belen, it is seen as commonplace with all the success in her family.
“It never really clicked,” Belen said. “My brother is a DI athlete, my cousin is DIII, all my aunts were playing it. So to me, it’s just normal.”
However, the tennis star will be part of an extremely talented class coming into Arizona, rated as one of the top in the nation and one of the best the Wildcats’ women’s tennis program has ever had.
“I’m super excited to be part of this recruiting class,” Belen added. “I’m really excited to meet the girls and it’s hard to wrap my head around that I’m a part of this group that’s coming in. It makes me excited thinking about what’s going to happen in the future because we could be a really big team. I’m really looking forward to just pushing myself and getting better.”
Getting better is something Belen did throughout her career at Auburn High School, which has been one of the most impressive ever in the Rockford area. She was a No. 1 singles player right off the bat, and it was her first team experience that she enjoyed most as a freshman.
“It’s one thing to do it for yourself, but doing it for your team and seeing how excited they are, too, just makes it so much better,” Belen said. “It’s a better feeling seeing how happy other people are on your team so it really motivated me to keep going.”
That feeling and additional success carried over into the remainder of Belen’s high school tennis career. As a sophomore, she had an impressive fourth-place finish at state in Class 2A. As a junior, she would finish runner-up at state, motivating her to go even further.
“My sophomore year, state was still good but I ended up losing my semifinals match which wasn’t the best thing,” Belen said. “It wasn’t the outcome I wanted, but I had to remind myself that fourth at state as a sophomore wasn’t that bad at all. I had set such high standards for myself that it was kind of disappointing, but if anything, that just made me more motivated for my junior year.
“My junior year, I had a mindset that there was no other option than getting to the state finals. That state tournament junior year was probably some of the best tennis I’ve played to this day. I got a little in my head and played my friend Kylie, and she just outplayed me in the finals. I wasn’t nearly as upset as I was sophomore year, but it was still a little bit heartbreaking. After each year, my motivation got so much higher.”
The goal for Belen was to come back in her senior season to win a long-awaited state title. However, the COVID-19 pandemic changed those plans. The Auburn girls tennis team would have a season last fall, but was relegated to local matches. Heartbreakingly for the Knights’ team captain, the IHSA did not hold a state tournament either.
“I’m still sad about it,” Belen noted. “It was heartbreaking to hear that there wouldn’t be state. But there’s nothing I can do about it and I just had to get over it. I still had a good finish to my junior year and am very proud and content with how my high school career ended.”
Belen concludes her high school career as just the second two-time girls state medalist to come out of the Rockford area, and joins one of her aunts as the only other competitor to compete in a state title match. Impressively, she never dropped a set within conference play at Auburn.
Ready to head out west to Arizona, Belen leaves behind a legacy that will not be lost in Rockford. Despite what some would see as a bitter ending to her high school career, Belen looks at the positives, and is proud of the impact she could leave on the Auburn program.
“I am just happy that I had the opportunity to give back to my school, my team and Rockford,” Belen explained. “I’m glad I got to leave a legacy for myself. A lot of people don’t get this chance, and if you do get this chance, you don’t get it a lot. Overall, I’m very proud of myself.”