"The competition in the Canadian University tennis circuit has grown each season. Every single year the competition just keeps getting better and better” – Zain Manji, former OTA Junior Provincial and National Champion, University of Toronto tennis star and graduate and co-founder of Fiix, a successful tech startup.
For many years, young tennis players from across the country have dreamed of turning pro; going on tour, winning tournaments including grand slams, travelling the world and attaining fame and fortune! In order to achieve this dream there are many sacrifices that an elite player and their family must make in order to have a chance. Of course, sometimes it pays off, but most of the time it does not work out quite as planned. During this development period, some forward thinking families also have an eye on the possibility of obtaining a scholarship at a US University. In fact, Canadians have been getting sports scholarships at US schools since at least the 1950’s. Over the past 20 years many high schools have introduced specialized study programs for students pursuing high performance athletics, whether it is with the aim of a professional career, a scholarship, or both!
Increasingly however, for promising young Canadian players it has become more and more difficult to obtain a tennis scholarship in the US. The proliferation of great young players produced all over the world has increased the competition for team spots. As well, especially for young men due to the ramifications of Title IX legislation, there are fewer “full ride” scholarships given out. It is more likely that, assuming a player is good enough to make a University team, they will be offered a “conditional” or “partial” scholarship, which lacks certainty and still might cost the student thousands of dollars per year. A student who is serious about their academic future and career goals must also have a long look at the quality of education they will receive at some US schools. For many, it is a risky road that could turn out to a great experience or a bust.
More and more gifted tennis players who have come through the provincial and national junior competitive structure have looked at the “stay at home” option for their post secondary education. As long as a student has the grades and can get accepted at a Canadian University, they are not faced with huge foreign student enrollment fees and have a pretty good idea of the quality of education they can count on at most Canadian institutions.
For many years the knock on the OUA (Ontario University Athletics) and the CIAU, (Canadian Interuniversity Athletics Union, now USport) was that, as far as their tennis program was concerned, the level of play was not very high, particularly at some of the smaller universities. Certainly, even today, it does not compare to the NCAA Division 1 US college structure in terms of depth but, as the provincial and national junior competitive structures produces more and more high calibre players, there are and will be, more players staying at home to earn their degree – and play University tennis. It is only natural that the depth of talent will increase.
One former OTA junior star had just such a choice a few short years ago – his name is Zain Manji. Zain, who is 23 now and from Ajax, Ontario, started playing with his father and younger brother Raheel, (more on Raheel later in the story) at the nearby Sandy Beach Tennis Club as a young boy. When Zain was around the 11, he and his brother began training at the Pickering Recreation Complex under the tutelage of head pro Dave Ochotta and his team. Within a short time Zain was ready to test his competitive chops and entered his first Rogers Rookie tournament at the Donalda Club in Toronto. Even though he lost in the first round Zain was hooked – he loved the tournament atmosphere, the competition and meeting players from other clubs and academies. He also learned what he had to do to improve and so went back to the Complex to continue his hard work. Zain got better and continued to progress through the OTA competitive structure; 2 Star events, 3 Star events, Selections, Provincial Qualifying and the OTA Provincial championships. In 2011, Zane won the U16 Boys Outdoor Provincial Championships. He followed that up with the U18 Boys Indoor Provincial Championships in 2013. He also finished in the top 8 in the country at the Nationals.
Needless to say, with results like this, doors were open for a potential pro career, a scholarship or maybe even both. By his own admission, Zain got into the college recruitment process on the late side – he began reaching out to coaches in the summer between his grade 11 and 12 years. Nevertheless, there was some interest at US colleges, but since they had already planned their rosters well ahead of time, they wanted to delay his admission by 6 months. Faced with the prospect of waiting longer to start school he began looking at Canadian options; particularly the University of Toronto and University of Waterloo, both which were strong in Engineering and Computer Science – 2 areas of interest. He decided to enroll at U of T in Computer Science with the idea of transferring to a US University at some point. Once he began at U of T however, Zain began to enjoy the academics and the school culture and ultimately, although it was a tough decision, decided to stay and finish his degree in Canada. During his second year of school, he decided to join the U of T tennis team and quickly became one of the schools best players.
The level of competition was good and Zain found himself playing with and against players he had competed with in his OTA junior days. The U of T team ended up winning the OUA’s both years Zain played on the team and went on to compete at the Canadian University Tennis Championships, held during the Rogers Cup in Toronto and Montreal. In his final year he led the team to a silver medal and was also named the male athlete of the year at U of T and the OUA tennis player of the year. Not bad for a walk on!
While competing at the top level for U of T, Zain still managed to keep his marks very high. In order to get some practical experience in his field he decided to take some time off between 3rd and 4th year and apply for internships in the Silicon Valley. With the terrific grades he was maintaining in Computer Science and Economics it was no wonder that he caught the attention of some hi-tech giants. Zain had intern stints with Google, Yelp and Instagram during that time! He then came back to U of T to finish his double major (graduating with a 3.94 GPA out of a possible 4.0).
While finishing up his degree, Zain began to prepare to enter the workforce, searching for hi-tech employment opportunities. He soon had a job offer from Facebook. But, during his internships and his final year, he had been thinking about doing some side projects on his own. In fact, while with one of his acquaintances Arif Banji, that they had the proverbial “aha moment”. Arif was mentioning that since winter was coming, he had wanted to get his tires changed – he went to a mechanic only to find that there was a 2 to 3 week wait. With bad weather imminent, there was no way he could wait this long so he called an relative who agreed to come to the house and do the work. While waiting for the tires to be changed the 2 young men were contemplating some projects they could execute together and suddenly realized that having someone come to a home to do the repairs was really convenient. Within days they created a website outlining the at home tire changing service and offered it to friends and family. After a couple of weeks they had over 80 people subscribing to the service – and they didn’t even have a mechanic! They named the company Tire Swap.
By promoting the company on social media, particularly Snapchat, the concept quickly caught the attention of customers, and also a Silicon Valley based incubator program Y Combinator. The seed funding provider invested $200,000 and mentored the partners, (a third partner, Khallil Mangali had joined). The company, renamed Fiix, was off and running! A second round of seed capital raised an additional $2,000,000 to scale the company. The capital allowed the company to grow on the tech side and with product offerings and customer acquisition.
After some rapid success, the partners decided that they might like to raise the company profile even further - they applied to be on the hit CBC series, Dragons’ Den – a show where aspiring entrepreneurs pitch their business concepts and products to a panel of Canadian business moguls who have the cash and the know-how to make it happen. Amazingly, they convinced 3 Dragons to invest $700,000 for a 7% equity stake in Fiix. Shortly after the show aired, the partners achieved a 6,000% increase in traffic on their website!
Today, Zain and his Fiix team are operating out of a downtown Toronto Innovation hub OneEleven. They want to build a strong foothold in Toronto, expand the customer base to include business to business clients and move to other North American cities.
Even though Fiix is starting to really take off, Zain still finds the time to play tennis at a competitive level – he tries to practice every morning before work, plays in the Mayfair Toronto Pro League and hopes to even play some ITF tournaments over the coming months.
Without a doubt, Zain Manji is on his way as a successful entrepreneur – based on obtaining a first rate education he earned in Canada – and he still got to play college tennis at a very high level – sounds like he’s getting his Fiix!
For more information on Fiix, visit www.fiix.io.
“At a certain point I started to really lock into tennis, using that as my route to get a scholarship here in the States” – Raheel Manji, former OTA Junior Provincial and National Champion and #1 Player at Indiana University (Hoosiers).
Zain’s younger brother Raheel was also a great OTA junior star – he won the OTA Junior Outdoor Provincials on 2 occasions, 2 Indoor Provincial crowns, as well as a national title and was always near the top of the national rankings. He was invited to several national training camps in Toronto and Montreal by Tennis Canada and ended up training with ACE in Burlington towards the end of his junior days. It was also helpful to have a top level brother, 3 years older, as a training partner. It was during his time at ACE that things really began to accelerate for Raheel. He got his first ATP points during that period, won a Canada Games gold medal as part of Team Ontario, played for Canada in Junior Davis Cup and was actively recruited by major US Universities. When Raheel was 16 he signed a scholarship agreement with Indiana University, an NCAA Division 1 school. He has been playing on the team for 4 years, including 2-plus years as the team’s number 1. Currently in his graduating year, pursuing a degree in Sports Management, Raheel has continued to play ITF pro tournaments in the off season, including an invitation to play Rogers Cup qualifying in Montreal in 2017!
It is interesting to see 2 high performance tennis playing brothers go different routes in pursuit of their post secondary education. While Zain had offers to go to the US, he chose to stay in Canada to earn his degree and play OUA tennis for U of T. Raheel, probably in part due to Zain’s recruiting experience, prepared early for his College experience, getting great results and making sure that his profile was in the hands of key college coaches. Many D1 colleges, notably Kentucky, Wake Forest, Baylor, Mississippi State and Indiana showed interest in him, particularly after he won the national junior title.
Since his first days as a tennis player Raheel has always been a highly focused and determined athlete and he has applied that focus and determination while planning his future playing and career paths. He knew early on that he wanted to go to a school with a strong tennis program. His plan all along, even while at Indiana, has been to go as far as he can with a pro career then, use his experience as a player and armed with a Sports Management degree, get into tennis coaching, preferably at the D1 level. He will resume his pro tournament commitment after graduating in the spring of 2018. Based on his performance, both on the courts and in the classroom, there is little doubt that he will be successful at whatever path he chooses.
Raheel and Zain took a different post secondary school route, proving that either choice can lead to a fulfilling experience, both in tennis and academically. What is certain is that playing the sport has taught them many of the life skills that have helped them succeed at school and will continue to guide them in their careers. The sport has always been central to their lives and will continue to play an important role in their future, both on and off the court.