Growing up in western France about 30 miles from the Atlantic coast, Tom Jomby had a limited awareness of Kentucky.
"I never heard of Kentucky," he said Thursday, "besides Kentucky Fried Chicken."
His official recruiting visit to the University of Kentucky on Halloween 2010 added to the confusion. The name of Lexington's airport, Blue Grass, puzzled him.
"Blue grass?" he recalled thinking. "What is that?"
The transformation from a boy in Nantes, France, to a worldly college senior and an All-Southeastern Conference tennis player continues this weekend as UK hosts first- and second-round matches in the NCAA Tournament. Jomby leads UK, which is the top seed in the Lexington pod, against Denver at the Hilary J. Boone Varsity Tennis Center. Second-seeded Clemson faces No. 3 seed Purdue in the first semifinal beginning at noon. The two winners play Saturday at 3 p.m.
The UK team, which has won the Lexington region each of the past four seasons to reach the Sweet 16, has a distinct French flavor. Second-year Coach Cedric Kauffmann is a native of Montsoult. Sophomore Charles Minc is from Paris. Volunteer assistant coach Anthony Rossi is from Marseille.
Jomby has been known to yell "allez" during matches. That's French for go, as in encouraging oneself to get engaged in a match.
Kauffmann will shout instructions to Jomby in French, although the UK coach downplayed the assumption that speaking in a foreign tongue creates an advantage over opponents. It's more a convenience.
"I don't have to get 2 feet from (the French-speaking players)," Kauffmann said with a smile. "I can just scream it from two courts away."
There's no super-secret strategy conveyed. "Just coaching stuff," Kauffmann said. "'Move your feet. Hit it to that corner. Hit it to his backhand. Come in more.' And stuff like that."
Opposing coaches offer similar advice, except in English. "Other coaches would just run over three courts," Kauffmann said.
If there is an advantage, it's that Jomby can more easily understand instruction in French. "Because it's my first language," he said.
Jomby claimed Yannick Noah, the patriarch of French tennis players, as an influence.
"He was influential because he was the last French guy to win the French Open," Jomby said. "As with anybody in France, my dream is to win the French Open.
"And he was also a black tennis player, just like me. He made me dream a lot watching him play. I still watch him play on YouTube, and stuff like that."
Kentucky, whose No. 2 singles player, Alejandro Gomez, is a native of Cali, Colombia, isn't the only team with a foreign flavor. All four teams in the Lexington pod have several foreign-born players. Purdue's coach, Pawel Gajdzik, is a native of Poland.
Kauffmann suggested that maybe half the players on most of the top 50 college teams grew up outside the United States. "I don't know if it's 50/50," the UK coach said, "but it's really close."
Social media outlets like Facebook enable coaches to more easily search for players throughout the world, he said.
But foreign-born players are nothing new. Longtime coach Dennis Emery recruited Kauffmann to UK in the 1990s, although no doubt it helped that Kauffmann was attending the famed Nick Bollettieri tennis academy in Florida at the time.
Jomby, who is 6-foot-6, tried basketball as a child. An older brother plays professional basketball in France.
"I quit when I was 10," he said. "I didn't like to lose when it was not my fault."
The Lexington pod will be something of a homecoming for Jomby. His mother, Bridgitte, and a sister are flying in from Paris. They will watch Jomby play for UK for the first time.
Then on Saturday, they will attend UK's graduation ceremony, where Jomby will receive a degree in communication and leadership development. "It's going to be a real special moment," said Jomby.