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Freshman Yulia Bryzgalova became a professional tennis player in Russia before joining the Penn women's squad as a 21-year-old.

Credit: Zach Sheldon

From Moscow to Philadelphia, and just about everywhere in between, Yulia Bryzgalova tears up the tennis court and continues to make a name for herself and for Penn women’s tennis.

The Russian-born, 21-year-old freshman decided to put her future professional career on hold to pursue a university degree at Penn, and she quickly worked her way up to becoming the Quakers' top performer. 

Bryzgalova, a decorated four-time national champion and two-time ITF pro doubles winner, adds more than just her experience to the team. 

“If you look at her record, there are a lot of three-setters. What this shows is that she finds a way to compete. When you say her name to me, I think of her competitive heart,” coach Sanela Kunovac said.

Bryzgalova began playing tennis at a young age, and as her skills continued to develop, so did her aspirations. She hadn’t planned on professional play from the beginning, and took her career one step at a time — letting her skills speak for themselves. 

“I was just playing tennis and I had good results,” Bryzgalova said. "When I was under 12 years old I was competing in Russia, and then I started to win most of my tournaments in Russia, and my parents decided that I needed to go compete in Europe. I did pretty well there, and then after that I came to America and played a lot of tournaments here. I didn’t really set out to play professionally, but my career just kind of built on itself."

Bryzgalova’s success on the court led her to play in a doubles tournament with a student from Columbia, who inspired her interest in going to an Ivy League university and representing her school on the court.

As Yulia recounts, the difference between individual professional play and team play is astounding, and she’s overjoyed to have the support of her team both on and off the court.

“I’m just really enjoying this team," she said. "The practices are the highlight of my day, and I really enjoy spending time with the team. It’s much more enjoyable than when you play pro tennis. I have school, my friends, and my team, and I don’t even have time to miss home."

In fact, the connectedness of the tennis program is what brought Bryzgalova to Penn, as Penn men’s tennis player Dmitry Shatalin reached out to Kunovac regarding Yulia’s skills and interest in coming to college in the United States.

“Shatalin came to me and said, ‘I know this girl from Russia, I’ve known her since we were kids, I think you would really want her on the team, she’s really good,’” Kunovac said. “So I looked at her results, and knew she could have a scholarship anywhere immediately. So I started thinking about how hard it would be to beat out other schools. Once Yulia came to visit here, I started to realize just how special she is, because of who she is as a person. I felt like she was the sort of DNA this team is made out of, and that she’d be a perfect fit, and she is.”

Bryzgalova continues to impress off the court as well, keeping up with her busy academic life as a student in the College by exploring different academic topics of interest while juggling the demands of college athletics. 

“The transition to being a student was actually pretty hard in the first semester,” Bryzgalova said. "[Before,] I was playing tennis most of my life, and the rest of the day I was just resting, but here I need to do a lot of homework and go to classes and actually do well in school. Once I got used to my schedule, though, it became so enjoyable.

Yulia plans to take her career and schooling one step at a time, and see where that leads her. Looking ahead to the rest of the season, she will certainly be key for the Quakers as they begin Ivy League play.