His office in Tabb Hall is filled with his prized possessions. A framed jacket given to him as a gift from then president of Venezuela with the colors of the country’s flag sits propped up against the wall under the window. A black motorcycle helmet rests on his shelf with the Venezuela, Spain and United States flags printed on the top and on either side. Directly below it sits a small, six-inch tall trophy holding a tennis ball, fitting perfectly in the cup between the tiny handles.
Jhonnatan Medina-Alvarez carefully opens a worn memory scrapbook sitting on his desk. He gently turns the pages, looking at pictures of his teenage self. His hair was long then, and in each picture he’s with family, friends and old teammates. He cracked a soft smile as he pointed to his teenage self on the front cover of a messy cutout of a Spanish-language newspaper article.
He shows up to work every day well-put together with his short, black hair carefully gelled over and always wearing Longwood apparel. Standing around six feet tall, he never takes a day off, working out to keep his slim, athletic frame, no matter the time of year. Jhonnatan’s heritage is ever present thanks to a noticeable accent, but speaks English flawlessly. Above all, Medina-Alvarez always greets others with positivity and kindness.
You would’ve never known he’s lost everything, witnessed death right before his eyes and stared down the barrel of a gun.
Medina-Alvarez was a Venezuelan tennis sensation just five years after picking up a racket for the first time when he was 9 years old. He learned quickly by hitting tennis balls against concrete building walls on the streets of his hometown, Caracas.
He began touring the world when he was 14 to compete internationally, wanting independence to pave his own way to success.
“My dad knew that I was an opinionated and straight-forward kid, so I wanted a place where I was able to learn other things about life that he thought was important,” he said. “I realized I needed to see life differently than just waiting for my parents to give me things.”
By 18 years old, he ranked in the top ten tennis players in South America and was the number one player in Venezuela of all players 18 and under.
Receiving a proper high school education became tough for Medina-Alvarez while bouncing from country to country. While he was competing globally, traveling to over 35 countries as a teenager and in his early 20s, friends and classmates back home were advancing their education.
The only difference was Medina-Alvarez thought he had his future all in front of him. After graduating high school in 1999, he declined to advance to higher education despite receiving numerous scholarship offers, deciding instead to pursue tennis professionally.
His face filled billboards along the streets of Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, and his name was all over the country’s newspapers.
“I had a maid, I had a chauffeur, I had everything you could possibly think that most people would love to have,” Medina-Alvarez said. “In my country, you either have the wealthy or the poor. You don’t have the mix in the middle.”
Back in Caracas, his father, Carlos, was on the opposite side of the spectrum. He lived most of his life trying to give his son everything he didn’t have. Because of this, he was a strong supporter of Jhonnatan’s aspirations to play tennis professionally. He was the best under-18 tennis player in the country, eventually reaching heights his father never reached.
“It created kind of like a false entitlement, because it didn’t belong to me, it belonged to him,” said Medina-Alvarez. “He’s giving me something that he thinks is going to be beneficial to me, but at the same time he’s making me miss the reason why he wasn’t successful because he brought me up from nothing.”
As he continued to climb the world tennis rankings, money followed, along with notoriety and the common trappings of fame. His name began to be recognized around the country.
Meanwhile, government corruption in Venezuela led to issues economically and politically. Economic difficulties resulted in a debt crisis in the 1990s and 2000s, creating an unrest amongst Venezuelan citizens.
“It got to the point where the country was not sustainable for what I wanted to do. I was a high-profile person,” said Medina-Alvarez. “I wanted to live my life freely.”
There was a genuine fear of being kidnapped as a high-profile person in Venezuela. People broke into his boyhood home numerous times, his brothers were attacked and he was even held at gunpoint.
“All the money I made as a professional, I had to not only hide it, but I had to hide who I was,” he said. “You learn to live like that.”
And he did. His father built a fortress from the ground up with three-meter walls, ten-inch steel doors and electric barbed wires. The fears of burglary, theft, assault and home invasion became an underlying, constant part of Jhonnatan and his family’s daily life.
“People would still get in,” he said. “The problem is, when they don’t have it, they’re just going to take it from you.”
A stroll down the streets of his hometown on the northern coast of Venezuela would lead you to find children fishing for their next meal in a nearby dumpster. Fights would break out leaving someone lying lifeless on the pavement, and he witnessed first-hand a person lit on fire for stealing.
“I’ve seen death many times,” he said. “It becomes normal because you cannot show signs of weakness.”
A household name in Venezuela during the 1990s and early 2000s, he was forced to keep a low profile to protect himself. He couldn’t walk down streets or take cabs without being recognized, and there was a lasting fear of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
His life took a dramatic turn when he began to slip down the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) rankings in the late 2000s, then sustained an injury during a match in which he almost lost his left thumb. A man who was once a rising tennis star, after all he’s seen and done, fell to his lowest point.
He struggled to acclimate to being considered a ‘normal’ person in a hostile country after his playing career ended. He still had money in his savings, and he still had to protect his identity because people still knew his name. Following his departure from professional tennis, Jhonnatan had blueprints to open his own tennis academy, but the government shut down his plans just before development.
Venezuela never showed signs of improvement with people continuing to show hostility towards the government. Hyperinflation began to take its course, causing people to flee to surrounding countries such as Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. In need of a change, Medina-Alvarez moved to the United States in September 2009 in search of something new.
“It was a different dynamic, I started from scratch,” he said. “The goal was to embrace my knowledge and try and bring it here to people in America”
Leaving his family behind, he found a tiny, one-bedroom apartment in Orlando, Fl., to live in by himself. With very limited English, no real job experience and no American citizenship, he believed nobody would hire him. His new life in America started extremely rough as a result, struggling to make ends meet. His only source of income for the first two years in America was from teaching private lessons.
“I was going to train anyone who wants a lesson because I had to make a living,” said Medina-Alvarez.
He made $50 a month teaching private lessons to anyone who wanted one. It turned into a game of chance, because if the player he taught didn’t think they benefited from the lesson, they’d take their money back. He knew nobody, and had no connections.
“I had everything I ever wanted because I was the best,” Medina-Alvarez said. “But here, who am I?”
Fortunately, he still had money in his savings, but the conversion system made American dollars less valuable than Venezuelan money. He gave himself six months of teaching private lessons while living in Florida, and if he couldn’t maintain a comfortable lifestyle, he planned on moving to Spain, where he already was a citizen.
“I wasn’t going to quit, I was gonna try to make it happen,” he said. “It was really hard, sometimes I was questioning myself.”
Two years after moving to the United States, Medina-Alvarez invested his savings into his own academy in Florida in 2010. His academy started small, but quickly became successful, reaching over 100 memberships. Eventually, he branded the name, calling it the Medina-Alvarez Tennis Champions (MATCH) academy.
He worked 10-11 hours a day at the academy with his income reaching $5,000 per month. At 28 years old, he thought he finally found a glimmer of light in a dark tunnel living in the United States.
In 2016, five years after applying for a green card, Medina-Alvarez officially became a licensed American citizen.
“I cried when I got the citizenship,” he said.
He said he did it because he wanted his family to move to the United States. Six years after moving to America, his family joined him.
However, his life took another hit. Medina-Alvarez was renting out the courts used for the MATCH academy from a Saudi Arabian prince for seven years from 2010-2017. Once memberships started to slip and conditions became poor, he put in $40,000 of his own money to refurbish the courts in exchange for the actual owner of the court to take care of the water supply on the clay courts. After making the investment, the water supply ended up being completely cut off.
“I lost everything,” he said. “Everything was gone the same way it came, but in a way I was in those shoes before, so it didn’t bother me.”
He hit a new low following the loss of both his academy and money, which he had been working tirelessly for the previous seven years. While continuing to live in Florida, he still had money, although very little, no job and no college-level degree.
In 2017, following the collapse of his academy, he wanted to move on from life in Florida. His long-time best friend from Venezuela, Maria Lopez, formerly women’s tennis coach at Longwood, contacted him about an opening as the head men’s tennis coach. However, a college degree was required for the position. But it didn’t stop Medina-Alvarez from sending in his résumé, boasting 20 years of tennis experience.
“How many years of school do you have to take to be able to have the same knowledge that I have? Because in the end, you are hiring a tennis coach,” he said.
His argument worked, and he received an interview with Longwood Director of Athletics Troy Austin.
“He understood that I had goals that I wanted to accomplish for the team, for the program and for the university,” said Medina-Alvarez. “And at the same time, I wanted to go to school.”
Austin was convinced, and Medina-Alvarez was hired in December 2017 as the head men’s tennis coach alongside his long-time best friend, leaving his entire family and girlfriend in Florida to coach a small Division I NCAA program in Farmville, Va. He never forgot about his goal to receive a college degree, though, as he officially enrolled in sociology courses for the Fall 2018 semester.
“I’m here because I want to leave something behind,” he said. “I have a different understanding because I’ve been fighting since I was born for everything that I wanted. Nothing gets handed to me.”
He enters the semester with zero credits to his name after his last graduation 20 years ago. Now as the newly appointed Longwood Director of Tennis, he is balancing coaching, classes and homework.
Medina-Alvarez lives alone in a rented attic, waking up around 5 a.m. every day. Following an early morning workout with his team, he works on homework up until his classes start at 8 a.m. He trains with his team in the afternoon and calls his family almost every night, then repeats the cycle all over again in the morning. He takes two classes at a time, so obtaining a degree will take time, but he has his mind set on accomplishing something he never thought he’d do.
“If I ever walk, the walk that you guys do when you get your degree, I’m going to cry like a baby,” he said with a smile.