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BOYS TENNIS: Bemidji finds French ace in exchange student Matthieu Benhamou

The Lumberjacks’ top singles player has immersed himself not only in a new country, but also a new way of playing a familiar game. With “discovery” being a core motivation to becoming a foreign exchange student this school year, Benhamou has found a niche on the courts.

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Bemidji senior Matthieu Benhamou serves a ball during a No. 1 singles match against Thief River Falls on Friday, May 13, 2022, at the BHS courts.
Micah Friez / Bemidji Pioneer
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BEMIDJI -- Matthieu Benhamou has played tennis before, but not like this.

“I used to only have one lesson per week in France,” the Bemidji High School boys tennis senior said. “I love these practices every day. I didn’t used to do a lot of matches, but I love the competition here.”

The Lumberjacks’ top singles player has immersed himself not only in a new country, but also a new way of playing a familiar game. With “discovery” being a core motivation to becoming a foreign exchange student this school year, Benhamou has found a niche on the courts.

“We’re all real nice to each other and very supportive,” Benhamou said. “There’s ups and downs like in every sport, but we’re all there to support each other. So that’s the big thing.”

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Bemidji senior Matthieu Benhamou uses his forehand during a No. 1 singles match against Thief River Falls on Friday, May 13, 2022, at the BHS courts.
Micah Friez / Bemidji Pioneer

Benhamou had quite a fanbase supporting him on Friday night at the BHS courts, where he challenged Thief River Falls’ Jack Onkka -- who defeated Benhamou in straight sets just eight days prior. This time around, though, Benhamou adjusted his game and flipped the script.

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It was one of the key moments of Bemidji’s 5-2 victory.

“I can have a strong attack game, but I need to control myself and not make a mistake too easily,” Benhamou said. “Today was more of a tactical game, putting the ball back in the court, finding the angles and letting him make the mistakes.”

Onkka breezed 6-4, 6-0 last week, but Benhamou put up a stronger fight on Friday. The two endured long rallies and a bevy of their opponent’s best shots. But Benhamou ultimately prevailed 6-3, 6-2, which elicited a mighty roar from the home fans on the final point.

“He’s been really, really fun to coach,” BHS head coach Kyle Fodness said. “He’s been one of our most improved players, just with his game plan and how he uses his shots.”

Benhamou is the latest in a line of exchange students to anchor the No. 1 singles spot for the Lumberjacks. Most recently, Italian brothers Nic and Filippo Buffo made their marks on the program in 2018 and 2021, respectively.

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Bemidji's Seth Lindgren, left, and Reed Johnson share a laugh after clinching a point during a match against Thief River Falls on Friday, May 13, 2022, at the BHS courts.
Micah Friez / Bemidji Pioneer

This year, Benhamou isn’t even the only foreigner on the team. He shares that title with fellow Frenchman Kenley Vincent and Italian Jacopo Coin.

“It’s yet another example of our athletic programs being representative of the community,” head coach Kyle Fodness said. “In Bemidji, we have a great college, we have the great Concordia Language Villages. It’s a very diverse city, so I think for international students, they’ve really enjoyed coming here and having that good experience.

“They’ve been ambassadors of their country a little bit. The (other) boys learn a lot about different parts of the world and different cultures. That’s been really fun to see from those guys.”

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Benhamou wasn’t the only BHS highlight of the day. John McNallan and Casey Rupp respectively won 6-4, 6-0 at No. 2 singles and 6-1, 6-4 at No. 3 singles to swing the match in favor of the home team.

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Bemidji junior Casey Rupp returns a volley during a match against Thief River Falls on Friday, May 13, 2022, at the BHS courts.
Micah Friez / Bemidji Pioneer

In doubles play, Aidan Larson and Jack McNallan won 6-3, 6-3 at No. 2, while Seth Lindgren and Reed Johnson won 6-3, 6-3 at No. 3.

The Jacks’ victory moved the team’s record to 17-1 on the season. And with the postseason beginning on Wednesday, May 18, there’s plenty left to accomplish before Benhamou returns to his hometown of Paris.

Two more years of high school await Benhamou, and then he hopes to return stateside to attend college. But before any of that, he wants to go out with bang alongside his teammates.

“I found a great (host) family, and I’ve been enjoying my experience,” said Benhamou, though he also admitted the winter was “very cold” and not his favorite part. “I’m just going to try to make the most of it, play my games at 100%.”

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A tennis fan attentively watches the No. 2 singles match between Bemidji's Noah Johnson and Thief River Falls' Dylan Hahn on Friday, May 13, 2022, at the BHS courts.
Micah Friez / Bemidji Pioneer

Bemidji 5, Thief River Falls 2

Singles

No. 1: Benhamou (BHS) def. Onkka, 6-3, 6-2

No. 2: Hahn (TRF) def. N. Johnson, 6-0, 6-7 (7-5), 10-8

No. 3: Jo. McNallan (BHS) def. Re. Janisch, 6-4, 6-0

No. 4: Rupp (BHS) def. Villarreal, 6-1, 6-4

Doubles

No. 1: Rh. Janisch/JJ Cornelius (TRF) def. Harris/Fuhrman, 7-6 (7-4), 6-7 (7-9), 10-8

No. 2: Larson/Ja. McNallan (BHS) def. Gonsorowski/Je. Cornelius, 6-3, 6-3

No. 3: Lindgren/R. Johnson (BHS) def. Rantanen/Hempel, 6-3, 6-3

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Bemidji senior Max Harris, right, makes a full extension for the ball during a match against Thief River Falls on Friday, May 13, 2022, at the BHS courts.
Micah Friez / Bemidji Pioneer

Micah Friez is the sports editor at the Bemidji Pioneer. A native of East Grand Forks, Minn., he joined the Pioneer in 2015 and is a 2018 graduate of Bemidji State University with a degree in Creative and Professional Writing. Follow him on Twitter at @micahfriez for Lumberjack and Beaver updates.
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