RADFORD — Radford University tennis player Alexandros Caldwell was at his family’s home in Mati, Greece, in July when his younger sister smelled smoke.
“I was like, ‘What do you mean, you smell smoke?’ ” he recalled before practice this week. “I looked outside the window and there was just fires everywhere.”
It was a wildfire.
Caldwell and his family fled their home and drove away, but their car was not a safe haven.
“The fire caught up to us,” he said.
Caldwell, his mother and his sister suffered burns and were hospitalized. They lost their home and all their possessions, as well as their dog.
The wildfires that hit a coastal region near Athens caused the deaths of 100 people, including many in Mati.
“I lost a … close friend,” Caldwell said. “There were a lot of people that passed away that I knew.”
Caldwell returned to Radford in late August for his senior year.
Two weekends ago, the Highlanders beat Campbell to win the Big South men’s tennis tournament for the first time in seven years.
Caldwell’s singles win clinched the crown.
“It was almost storybook,” athletic director Robert Lineburg said.
On Friday, the Highlanders will face Tennessee in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
“Last year, I would say it was the worst year of my life,” Caldwell, 21, said. “This year, so far it’s been the best year of my life.”
‘My whole face was burned’
Caldwell blossomed into a tennis standout in Greece. He wanted to play college tennis in America, so he emailed his resume and a video link to 10 college coaches, including then-Radford coach Mike Anderson.
Anderson offered him a full scholarship. Caldwell enrolled for the spring 2016 semester.
As a junior last year, Caldwell won 19 singles matches and 12 doubles matches.
He returned home to the seaside town of Mati for the summer.
It was 5 p.m. on July 23 when the wildfire reached his neighborhood.
“It happened too fast,” Caldwell said. “It was extremely windy.
“We could see it coming down our street — it was that close.”
Caldwell — whose father had died of a heart attack when Caldwell was 15 — and his teenage sister were alone in the house. His sister grabbed their dog, and they raced outside.
“The smoke was so intense, you couldn’t see 2 meters in front of you,” Caldwell said. “The air was hot, really hot.”
Their mother arrived home from work at that same time.
“She was like, ‘I have to close all the windows in the house,’ ” Caldwell said. “I was like, ‘Mom, we don’t have time. We have to go right now.’ ”
They got in their Toyota and drove away. They were not able to get very far.
“The drivers of the cars had abandoned their cars and they started running because they panicked,” Caldwell said.
The fire reached them as they sat in traffic, and their car caught fire.
Caldwell opened the front passenger door.
“The hot air ... came in my face,” he said. “My whole face was burned. … I was in so much pain.
“Thank God it was first degree. I just lost basically the first layer of skin.”
The family and their dog got out of the car.
“Because of the hair of the dog, it was really flammable,” Caldwell said. “As soon as the dog stepped out of the car, it just caught fire.”
They made it on foot to the ocean in about five minutes.
“Thank God because I grew up there, … I knew a secret path to the sea,” Caldwell said.
They jumped in the ocean.
“My mom and my sister were really sad,” he said. “I was like, ‘All the physical things can be replaced, but the three of us are good. As long as we have each other, everything can be fixed.’ ”
They stayed by the ocean for hours, waiting for the fire to subside, before walking to a hotel that had not been affected. Caldwell’s grandfather met them there and took them to the hospital.
Caldwell spent five days in the hospital because of smoke inhalation. The burns on his face healed in three weeks.
His mother and sister also had short hospital stays. They had lost their flip-flops when getting out of the car, so they had walked barefoot on the hot asphalt to get to the sea.
“They basically had third-degree burns on their feet,” Caldwell said. “They couldn’t walk for two months.”
‘Dream come true’
While playing in junior tennis tournaments in Greece as a youngster, Caldwell had become friends with Stefanos Tsitsipas, who is currently ranked No. 10 on the ATP Tour.
Tsitsipas started a Facebook fundraiser last summer for Caldwell and Caldwell’s family, and raised about $9,000.
The Radford men’s tennis team started its own Facebook fundraiser for Caldwell and his family, and raised more than $8,000.
Greece’s Olympic Federation also gave financial aid to Caldwell, and to other athletes who were affected by the wildfires.
Caldwell’s mother and sister now live in an apartment in another town.
“Everything we received were to … pay for the apartment, get new clothes because we had nothing,” Caldwell said.
Officials in the Radford athletic department stayed in touch with him for the rest of the summer — as did Anderson, who was the first of three head coaches that Caldwell has had at Radford.
Caldwell asked his mother if he should return to Radford for his senior year.
“I was like, ‘Do you want me to stay? Do you need support?’ ” he said. “She was like, ‘No, life must go on.’ ”
Caldwell, who is a team co-captain, has been playing at No. 3 singles and at No. 2 doubles this season.
He is 18-4 in singles and 12-8 in doubles this year. He made the All-Big South second team in singles.
“What I’ve been through made me more mentally and psychologically strong,” he said. “I came in the courts with a different mentality.
“Even though that was a bad experience, I feel like it made me stronger.”
Radford hosted the Big South tournament two weeks ago. In the final, the fifth-seeded Highlanders led second-seeded Campbell 3-2 with two singles matches still in progress. Caldwell then won his match 3-6, 7-6 (7-3) 6-3 to clinch Radford’s 4-2 victory and the title.
“It was a dream come true,” Caldwell said. “I was always dreaming of winning the Big South, but me clinching it, it was beyond anything I could ever imagine.”
“How much the kid has been through, I can’t even imagine being in his shoes,” Radford first-year coach Rob Bareford said. “To see him have that clinching moment for us, it was kind of like a movie.”
Radford clinched an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament. The Highlanders will play the host Volunteers on Friday as part of a four-team regional.
Caldwell, who has a 3.77 GPA, was recently named to the Big South men’s tennis all-academic team. He is on track to graduate this month with a degree in business management.
Rolando Vargas, who steered the Highlanders last season, is now the coach at Sun Belt member Troy. Caldwell will serve as his graduate assistant next season while pursuing a master’s degree in sports management.
At Radford’s annual athletic department awards banquet Monday, Caldwell not only received the department’s senior leadership award but also the courage award.
“I feel blessed,” Caldwell said.