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Credit: Cindy Chen

Photoshopping Vladimir Putin (amongst other things) onto pictures of her teammate in play, Marta Kowalska, with her friend and doubles’ partner OJ Singh, crafts a Facebook-worthy cover photo to advertise this weekend’s match against Maryland.

It’s the Monday night after a successful weekend against Drexel, and Kowalska, who held a racquet before she could walk, is quick to brush off any compliments about her two-set victory.

“It’s just tennis.”

Poland to Penn

Recruited by Penn as the No. 1 U-18 player in Poland, Kowalska’s presence is not marked by a towering stature or aura of intensity but rather a cool demeanor of humility and whimsicality befitting an international tennis player who just began her career in American intercollegiate tennis.

“It’s been pretty interesting here,” she remarked. Despite being a relatively decorated and seasoned player, Kowalska admits that her experience in Poland did very little to prepare her for tennis in the United States. 

Her record of being two-time national champion in both singles and doubles play, a finalist at several internationally recognized tournaments and arguably, Poland’s top player has been long forsaken since she began practicing over the summer at the Hecht Tennis Center.

A pointed comparison she makes is one on her shifting views of tennis as a sport. For 14 years she played tennis as an individual — even in doubles play — competing on her own and relying on herself. However, that completely changed when she met Sanela Kunovac, head coach of Penn women's tennis.

Kunovac, who is known for her philosophy of team play, often tells the players on her squad to “play for each other.” Each victory and loss is a team experience.

“I really like the idea of playing for my team. In Poland, a lot the competitions were individual experiences, but here it’s different,” Kowalska said.

“Every match that I play in — all my wins and losses — are for the team. And I think it’s really cool because everyone else on the team feels the same way.”

For Kowalska, the prospect of a team dynamic is one that is unfamiliar but warmly welcomed. Because the women’s tennis team is the smallest sports team on campus with only eight players, Kowalska feels the tight-knit sense of family on the team.

“We all really like our coaches," she added. "To a lot of the girls, our coach is more than a coach. We talk to her about a lot of other things besides tennis. She helps us with homework and essays that we write.”

She compares this to her relationship with her coach in Poland.

“I’m still in touch with my tennis coach and friends back home. He’s a bit old and so he’s not super great with technology so we don’t talk as much as I’d like, but when I went home for break, he helped me practice and train.”

A different game

Another unprecedented change for Kowalska is the competition in the intercollegiate circuit.

“In Poland, played a lot of international and national tournaments so I traveled all over Europe," she explained. "There was a group of top players so I always knew what to expect from other players because I had competed against them before. Here, I don’t really know what to expect, but I don’t mind.”

Regardless of her inexperience with other athletes, Kowalska has managed to hold her own and has contributed to many of the squad’s victories.

“Here everyone wants to win and everyone fights to win. I remember in Poland the first couple of rounds I could easily win 6-0, 6-0, without much effort, but here it’s so different. I don’t know anyone and I don’t think anyone knows me, so there’s a lot of competition.”

Kowalska’s shift in circuit has been one with a harsh learning curve, especially after a few years of being recognized as one of Poland’s best. However she does not mind the work and practice that comes with it. She believes the experience is humbling and a positive change.

“In Poland, I could lose a few matches to practice new techniques for a more important tournament,” she reflects. “But here, I can’t afford to practice during a match. I have to play my best, because every match counts.”

There is, after all, no "I" in team.

First swings

Kowalska’s first memory of the sport was when she was five. Her father would often take her and her older brother to recreationally play at some of Krakow’s local tennis courts.

She explains that her parents were never athletes themselves, although she and her brother were nationally recognized tennis players in Poland. Her brother, Jakob, was the first to begin the Kowalska family tennis lineage.

“He was diagnosed with diabetes when he was seven, and the doctor told him to pick up a healthy hobby,” she explains. “And I think with my father in mind, tennis was a natural choice.”

Following in her brother’s footsteps Kowalska began her mastery of the rubber ball and aluminum racquet — playing in local club teams, competing on the international circuit,and continuing her career here at Penn.

“I’ve been playing tennis for a long time and I’m pretty sure I’m going to stay with it during my time here at Penn.”

For Kowalska, being a student-athlete adds to her identity of duality. The balance she pursues between schoolwork and extracurriculars is a familiar ambition for a lot of other Penn students, however, she views it as more of a lifestyle.

“I can’t say for sure that I perpetually prioritize tennis over school or school over tennis, but I like the fact that I can have both.”

A freshman in Wharton, Kowalska puts as much effort into trying to overcome the notorious Wharton curve as she does in her forehand technique.

“I schedule my classes and other activities around tennis practice and matches," she said. "And I go between one and the other a lot of times. Like if I don’t do too well on a test sometimes, I’ll always try really hard or have a lot of fun in tennis that day. Or if a match doesn’t go my way, I’ll refocus my efforts on school and make the most of what I’m learning.”

Duality is such a tremendous part of her identity. Being an international student from Poland and a student-athlete are only additions to her comparative experiences in tennis. Regardless of being in between two worlds, Kowalska manages to strike a perfect balance that works for her and her love for the sport.

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