Sanela Kunovac, Nicole Ptak and Rachel Shweky have little in common -- except for the fact that all three are freshman starters on the Penn women's tennis team. Kunovac is Penn's No. 1 singles player, and Ptak is right behind her as the Quakers' No. 2. Shweky, meanwhile, plays No. 6 singles and No. 1 doubles. "Being able to start in a lineup as a freshman is huge," Penn junior captain Jolene Sloat said. "They are adapting so well to the pressure." Though all three may be adjusting similarly, their backgrounds couldn't be more different. Kunovac came to the United States five years ago as a refugee from Bosnia. She quickly assimilated to life in America, both athletically and academically. Kunovac captured the 1999-2000 Florida high school state tennis championship before graduating as valedictorian of Bradenton Academy (Fla.) last June. When Kunovac called Penn coach Mike Dowd in response to his recruitment letter, he was determined to have her play for the Quakers. "I put on the charm and was in Florida watching her play a week later," Dowd said. "I thought, this is a player. This girl could really come in and do some damage." Kunovac attributes her athletic prowess to her parents' support. "My parents have given me everything they could to give me choices in life," she said. "They are my backbone." Dowd believes that Kunovac's parents are only part of the reason why Kunovac has become such a dynamic tennis player since starting the sport at age six. "She has been on tennis courts all over the world," Dowd said. "There is very little fear there. That confidence makes her as tough as she is." "Any time you work with her," Sloat added, "you know you're going to get a great workout." Although she hasn't travelled as far or played for as long as Kunovac, Ptak has been an equally impressive addition to the Quakers. Soon after she applied early to Penn, Ptak shot up into the top-16 in the national rankings. Ptak's ascent compelled a host of Division I schools to offer her scholarships, but fortunately for Penn, she had already committed. Though she was voted best female athlete four years in a row at her high school in Great Neck, N.Y., Ptak was not serious about tennis until she was 15. According to Dowd, to get to the Division I collegiate level of tennis, it is typical to start playing at age seven or eight. Ptak has fostered her own love of tennis, however, since she committed herself to the sport only three years ago. "The reason I got good is because I pushed myself and [my parents] didn't push me at all," Ptak said. Having also started late in tennis, Sloat respects Ptak's determination. "Nicole is the most aggressive [of the three]," Sloat said. Still, aggressiveness probably defines all three of Penn's freshmen -- including Brooklyn, N.Y., native Shweky. Shweky, who has proved herself to be an essential asset to the team on both the doubles and singles courts, is the third in a series of atypical recruiting scenarios for Penn. Two summers ago, Dowd happened to be at an Intercollegiate Tennis Association tournament at Georgetown where Shweky was the only high school player competing. After seeing her play, Dowd pursued Shweky, and she consequently applied early to Penn. "Rachel was not recruited as much as she could have been because she had stopped doing the junior tournaments," Dowd said. Like Kunovac, Shweky attributes her success in tennis to parental support. "My parents have stuck by my side, and had faith in my game, and have told me to do my talking with my racket," Shweky said. No matter what team she's playing for, she also takes her membership seriously. "I have always been known for keeping the team together and keeping everyone with a positive perspective," she said. It will be the role of all three of these freshmen -- who comprise half of Penn's singles lineup -- to keep the team together. "One of the reasons why these three are successful is because they don't like to lose," Dowd said. After contemplating for a minute, he marveled, "I've never had three freshmen start in the line-up before." After losing its top two singles players to graduation, Penn seemed due for a rebuilding season. But with the solid play of the Quakers' trio of newcomers, it has become apparent that the Red and Blue have a shot at winning the Ivy League title. And if it's the dedication of Penn's freshmen that will make or break the team's season, then the Quakers have good reason to feel confident. "I could have had the worst day of my life," Kunovac said. "But for the hour or two everyday on the court, everything goes away -- it's just me and the tennis ball. It's just natural."Comments powered by Disqus
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