ETSU head men’s tennis coach Yaser Zaatini first came to ETSU in 1990 for the opportunity to play collegiate tennis in the United States. 20 years later, the Venezuela native presides over one of the nation’s most dominant tennis programs, as his Buccaneers play for their fourth consecutive A-Sun Championship on Saturday morning.
Dave Mullins, longtime ETSU tennis coach, brought Zaatini to the U.S. to help build a winning tradition on the courts in Johnson City. Zaatini obliged, helping bring the Bucs their first two conference championships, earning two consecutive All- America honors and becoming a fixture at all the ITA’s national championships.
Mullins brought Zaatini back to ETSU in the fall of 2002 to serve as his assistant coach but in January of 2003, the school promoted the veteran tennis coach to Athletics Director, and Zaatini took hold of the reins to what was, by now, a perennial power.
“Yaser did a great job from the very beginning,” Mullins said. “The tennis aspect was always easy for him, but he had to learn so much about the administrative aspect of the job after he was on the job, and he has really developed in that respect.
“He has such an intense love for and loyalty to ETSU, and he’s such a fierce competitor. Even as a player, I saw how he controlled every match he played in, and in practice, he never lost a match; he just wasn’t going to lose to a teammate.”
Zaatini’s ETSU career, whether as a player or as a coach, has always been successful. He reached as high as number four in the national rankings his senior year, and as a coach has won either a conference regular season championship, tournament title or both in each of his seven seasons.
Such a high level of achievement typically attracts interest from larger schools, but nowhere else interests Zaatini at the moment.
“The love I have for this place that gave me so much is too much to describe,” he says. “Too many good things have happened at ETSU, and it’s where my roots are, and those roots don’t stop growing. They extend to the community, to my kids’ school, to where I built my house and even to the restaurants where my family and I go to eat. This place made me believe in myself as a person and as a player, because of my time her I was able to blossom into who I am today.”
Other schools trying to lure Zaatini away remains a constant threat Mullins has dealt with on and off for the past 20 years, but he remains assured in his head coach’s unwavering loyalty and affection for the institution.
“After his freshman year, teams would call Yaser and try to recruit him behind my back,” Mullins said. “But Yaser always took pride in representing a ‘small school.’ I think he knew we were building something special here, and he wanted to be a part of it.”
As much as he is loyal to the school, much of Zaatini’s devotion is directed toward the man who brought him to ETSU in the first place. Even through the relationship’s evolution from coach-to-player to athletic director-to-head coach, he insists the nature of the bond remains consistent.
“Just because our titles change, it doesn’t transform the essence of the relationship,” he says. “For him, I think it’s about respect, love and wanting the best for me. He’s the reason I’m here, and I get a great sense of showing appreciation for a man who has given me everything and done all in his power to help me succeed.”