North Texas Daily

Russian tennis duo reunites on North Texas court

Russian tennis duo reunites on North Texas court

February 04
04:32 2016

Alex Lessard | Associate Sports Editor

@alexlikechexmix

Since becoming head coach of the Mean Green women’s tennis team in 2006, Sujay Lama has proven his knack for finding talent from all over the world to fill his roster every season. But due to the diversity of his teams, bringing in two players from the same city and country can be tough to come by. 

This year he broke that trend.

“Recruiting is a competitive thing. You snooze, you lose,” Lama said.

Senior Kamilla Galieva and freshman Maria Kononova both grew up in Ufa, Russia, the capital city of the Republic of Bashkortostan. Tennis is not one of the most popular sports in Russia, but coming to the United States to compete on the collegiate level was a special opportunity. 

Kononova said she barely considered college tennis at all in high school  but was convinced by her father that she should look into the possibility. Once she visited the U.S. for the first time in Florida, her college application process began.

“I tried to take some exams like the SAT. I did pretty good, and my coach in Russia knew [Lama],” Kononova said. “I can say it was kind of destiny, because Kamilla was here also. So I decided to try.”

The comfort of having her teammates’ aid and a native of her hometown around has made Kononova’s transition to life in the U.S. seamless. She said learning a new language and adapting to a new culture was difficult at first, but the patience and kindness of her peers allowed her to feel comfortable, particularly with the support of Galieva. 

Despite a three-year age difference, the duo formed a close friendship after playing against each other in tournaments growing up. When Kononova was making her final decision on which college to choose, she asked Galieva about North Texas, who had nothing but great things to say about the school..

“I think it was a benefit for me to know that she’s here,” Kononova said. “She was ready to help me with what I need and give me advice.”

For Galieva, the road to Denton was a bit longer. She played her freshman season at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, but the school’s tennis program was stripped the following year, leaving her in search of a new school to transfer to.

After the Trojans defeated the Mean Green in the Sun Belt conference tournament, Galieva talked with coach Lama about finding a way to come to North Texas.

“When I saw them, how they were fighting and were a really good team, I just wanted to come here,” Galieva said. “It was my first choice. I just wanted to go to North Texas.”

While Lama typically has to travel to obtain top-tier international talent, he coincidentally didn’t have to travel to Russia to find his Ufa duo.

Nevertheless, he still spends a lot of time traveling overseas throughout the season to find future talent, often taking the international trips just days after making travel arrangements.

“You don’t really have a choice to make those trips,” Lama said. “You make it when it’s time to make it.”

Lama’s first priority while scouting young players is always to evaluate their on-court skills, but academics are equally important to him. Galieva and Kononova were both outstanding students in high school, exemplifying exactly the type of work ethic Lama looks for.

“They seize the moment, and they’re appreciative of what they get here,” Lama said. “I never have to worry about them not putting forth their best effort, showing up late or not going to school because they take everything very seriously.”

Goals of winning the Conference USA tournament and maintaining a high academic standard give Lama plenty to be focused on each year. This season, one of his biggest challenges has been managing an equally youthful and experienced roster. Aside from junior Alexis Thoma, the entire team is comprised of only freshmen and seniors.

As a result, Lama has asked his seniors to take on a larger leadership role this season. Galieva said she has embraced the opportunity to mold the freshmen into close, supportive teammates.

In Russia, players only compete in singles matches, often growing up without the experience of playing in a team atmosphere. That has led Galieva to spend even more time working with her freshman counterpart.

“When you’re on the team, you have to fight for each other. You have to be together,” Galieva said. “Even if you lose your match, you have to go support your teammate. I feel like I’m trying to tell her how to do it the right way.”

Featured Image: Freshman tennis player Maria Kononova laughs with teammate freshman Tamuna Kubtubidze during a practice. Courtesy | North Texas Athletics

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