When college athletics shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic last year, athletes all across the country were forced into an unfamiliar position, one in which they were unable to compete and practice like normal with their teams.
One of those athletes is Alex Kotzen, last year’s ITA Northeast Rookie of the Year, a sophomore on Columbia University’s Men’s Tennis team. Like many other student-athletes Kotzen was shocked by the news of cancellations.
“I remember we were at Van Cortland Park playing some outdoor tennis. We were about to travel to Texas for spring break to play Texas, Baylor and TCU. We were practicing and [Columbia Head Coach] Howie [Endelman] brought us into what turned out to be our least team huddle, he told us our season was cancelled, and that there would be no NCAA’s,” recalls Kotzen. “It was crazy, it really didn’t feel real. It’s really unfortunate for our seniors, to have your final year taken from you. Those guys are some of my closest friends so it was tough…there are bigger things than tennis of course, and it was important to keep that in mind.”
But Kotzen made sure not to let the season’s cancellation halt his development as a tennis player, and instead did the opposite and used the time to improve as much as he could, something he credits the Columbia coaching staff (Coaches Endelman and Bonfiglio) for.
“My coaches at Columbia have helped me a ton, I definitely would not be playing at the level I am now without them,” he said. “In the terms of quarantine, there’s no way I would have been working as hard as I did without their influence. They helped me mature and see things in a different way. Instead of being frustrated at the situation, I tried to look at it as a good opportunity and it’s paid off.”
That maturity has led Kotzen to use this year to compete and win at the professional level. This summer Kotzen spent a lot of time competing in France, before starting to play professional events in Tunisia in September.
“I was in France in August where they have a men’s tour with tons of tournaments. It was good to get some matches in. I played 20 matches in three weeks at five different tournaments, and went 19-1. I was playing good tennis,” said Kotzen. “Quarantine was actually good for me, in a way, because it allowed me to train every day with the singular focus of improving my tennis.
France really got me match tough and ready for Tunisia. I was only going to go for three weeks initially, I played my first future and qualified for the main draw, and made it to the semifinals where I lost 7-6 in the third. It was a good first result though, it was going well. After a couple more tournaments I picked up some more ATP points, and was now ranked around #1200 ATP, but got injured, tried to tough it out, and ended up having to come home.”
Before returning home Kotzen had been traveling with former Harvard player Jean Thiroun, who came up with the idea to start a company together. “Jean saw I had a lot of time on my hands, and with a pretty bad injury, there wasn’t much I could do. So he asked if I wanted to start a tennis product customization business.” With Kotzen sidelined he saw the company as an opportunity to help fund his trips overseas to compete. The two then started Custom Racquet Products.
“It’s been a really great experience, and has given me a way to self-fund my trips on the tour, which is important to me because after college, once I start playing full-time, I want to be fully financially independent,” he said. “If I start something like this now and continue to grow it at the rate it’s been growing, then I’ll be able to fund my years on tour, and not have to necessarily rely on prize money. I’m also building skills that will help me in any work environment so if I’m not doing well on tour years down the road, then it’s okay. I’ll give it my best shot and if it doesn’t work out, I have an established revenue stream plus a great degree to fall back on.”
In between his rehab and online classes at Columbia, Kotzen put in the work to get the company off the ground, and soon the company Custom Racquet Products, LLC was created. They take customer’s logos, and turn them into the customized products they offer. They just launched their new website, www.customracquetproducts.com in the beginning of March. Check it out and request a quote!
“We started out taking customer’s logos and turning them into customizing dampeners. Now we’ve expanded a lot and make customized pure-cotton wristbands, water bottles, which are stainless steel type bottles, very similar to YETI, and the same quality. We’re also starting to customize pickleball products, and recently came out with microfiber sport towels, they might be my personal favorite product,” said Kotzen. “It’s just a good way to spend time while you’re not on court. I’m taking classes online which takes up a lot of my time, but when I’m not doing that or training and lifting, I’m spending time making calls. When I’m in the U.S., I spend a lot of time calling country clubs, tennis centers, etc. and talk to them about what I’m doing, and seeing if they have interest. The response has been really positive overall.”
Kotzen, who trained with Centercourt as a junior, has made custom dampeners for the club, and his on and off court success doesn’t come as a surprise to them.
“Alex is a true leader in the community at Centercourt,” said Conrad Singh, CEO of Tennis at Centercourt. “My favorite story of Alex is when he was injured with his shoulder back in 2018 and he did not miss a day of training, He would come to the program and train left-handed the entire session. Alex is also an entrepreneur who has created some incredible new ways for Clubs to improve visibility within the community and in doing so has been able to self-fund his Professional Tour Travels. We are very proud of Alex and his brothers for all they are doing and continue to support them in every way we can.”
The company landed a deal with UTR and created customized products for them, which was a major milestone for the start-up.
“It’s cool when you make a big company like UTR products that they love,” he said. “It’s great to have the approval of a global brand like that, to have them like your work and want to continue doing business with you. It’s really rewarding, and it’s awesome to have them send you a logo, and with hard work take that logo from an image, and turn it into a physical product.”
The last year has been a difficult and strange one for everyone and has put an emphasis on self-improvement, something Kotzen has done through dedication to both his company and playing career, all while maintaining his academics at Columbia. As he continues growing and improving at both of his passions, Kotzen has given himself options so no matter what route he chooses to go down he will be set up for success.
Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for New York Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org