North Texas Daily

Younger tennis players embrace their roles

Younger tennis players embrace their roles

Younger tennis players embrace their roles
February 15
11:21 2019

Seniors Maria Kononova and Tamuna Kutubidze are the faces of North Texas tennis and have gained national recognition over their four-year playing careers. Both are known for their individual play and doubles performances. Despite this, they are outnumbered on the roster by four underclassmen. Juniors Ivana Babic, Alexandra Heczey and Haruka Sasaki and sophomore Nidhi Surapaneni all have less experience than the three seniors on the roster, but all have their own characteristics that bring something to the team.

“They all are so different and so unique,” head coach Sujay Lama said. “You’ve got Ivana who’s so tall, she’s got the big serve. You’ve got Alex who’s like a powerful player. You’ve got Nidhi who’s a crafty player and then you’ve got Haruka who’s like the hustle queen.”

 Each of the four comes from a different foreign country, a pure coincidence of recruitment that diversifies the team both on and off the court.

“We’re just looking for the best student-athlete possible every time we’re recruiting,” Lama said. “It’s a combination of their tennis ability, their academic ability and then their character.”

Lama said he sees all three of those traits in Babic, Heczey and Sasaki. Currently, Surapaneni is the youngest player on the roster. Despite being a class below her peers, she has always been welcomed and even embraces the role of “team baby”.

“It’s actually really nice, I feel really good when everyone was treating me like a baby,” Surapaneni said. “When Ivana’s like “come here my little girl”, I just love it whenever they do that. I feel special.”

 Surapaneni almost missed the chance to play for North Texas. Though, the team was full at the time of her visit to Denton, but Lama still decided to invite the India native to North Texas.

“We had heard about her and we got in contact,” Lama said. “She just happened to be visiting a couple universities in America and we said, ‘Hey, why don’t you come [visit]?’ At that time, I don’t think we even had a scholarship, we were just like ‘Hey come and check us out’ and she really liked it, and a couple weeks later, we had an opening.”

The juniors on the roster did not have to wait for a roster spot to open up in order to join the team, but that did not make their recruitment any easier. Babic said the process was “very stressful”  and that did not end after she joined the team.

“Coach actually came to Croatia, my home country, to see me play,” Babic said. “He offered me a scholarship, but there was definitely a path to me actually getting here to UNT. I really didn’t have great English, that was a huge problem. [Coach] did a lot to bring me here, so hopefully he doesn’t regret it.”

Babic plays in the doubles with Heczey. Unlike her partner, the Hungary native said she had to make her name known to the tennis staff herself before she could get on the roster.

“I actually found the university on social media,” Heczey said. “I texted Coach Lama and then we had a Skype interview, he visited me in my country too. From that point, I wanted to come here.”

For the three years that they’ve played together, Heczey and Babic have been the team’s most consistent doubles pairing after Kononova and Kutubidze. Despite the latter pairing’s level of success, Heczey, Babic and Surapaneni said they have never felt dimmed by their teammates’ play.

“It’s never that they’re overshadowing,” Surapaneni said. “I see it as they’re setting goals for us. So, whenever they achieve something, it’s like ‘Oh, now it’s our time to achieve it.'” 

When Kononova and Kutubidze leave the program at the end of this season, their list of achievements will leave big shoes to fill for Babic and Heczey, who will assume the role of team leaders along with Sasaki. The two jokingly brushed off any pressure for next year, but both know they’ll have to raise their level of leadership.

“I think we should probably step up from the beginning,” Babic said. “To help the freshmen understand what does it mean to be a teammate, play for the team. That was hard for me when I came. We are individuals, our whole life we play tennis for ourselves, so that is something different once you come play for college.”

The Mean Green will welcome four freshmen to the roster next fall. Two of the players are from Germany, while the other two will come from Egypt and China. All four are currently in the process of finishing high school and getting their paperwork done to come to North Texas.

Featured Image: UNT junior Alexandra Heczey plays a singles match against Abilene Christian University on Jan. 15, 2019. Image by: Will Baldwin.

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Caleb Akpan

Caleb Akpan

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