With one player each from Canada, Croatia, Poland, and Russia, the 2019 Penn women’s tennis roster features 10 student-athletes who represent a greater number of countries than they do states. Ever since coach Sanela Kunovac took the reigns of the program, however, that kind of roster composition has been anything but abnormal.
Nearly a decade into her time at the helm of Penn women’s tennis, Kunovac, who herself represented the Red and Blue on the court from 2000-2004, has overseen an influx of foreign-born players who seem to transition seamlessly into the team. Kunovac made it clear, though, that her teams’ high concentrations of international talent were not the result of an unconventional recruiting strategy.
“We look for the best class when we recruit,” she said. “If they happen to be from outside [of the United States], we’ll go for those players, and if they happen to be American, we’ll go for those.”
Despite her insistence that the players whom she recruits are simply the best available to her, Kunovac also admitted that she can see how her team sticks out from the crowd.
“I think [having international players] is a Penn tennis thing,” she joked. “At least, it’s a Penn tennis thing when we’re winning.”
While there may be some skepticism on Kunovac’s part about a conscious focus on taking advantage of international talent pools, the numbers show that the program has certainly undergone a transformation under her guidance. According to hometown listings on the Penn Athletics website, from 2001-2009, Penn women’s tennis rosters featured an average of 2.25 international players, who accounted on average for 18.69 percent of the team. Since Kunovac’s return to her alma mater, those numbers have grown to 3.4 and 32.76, respectively.
Perhaps in line with this shift in team composition, the 2018-19 squad, which features four international players in addition to senior OJ Singh, who relocated to the United States from India at the age of 12, rounded out its year with a 16-5 record, the program’s best since the 2006-07 season.
Many current players highlight the team’s geographic and cultural diversity as being a positive and significant aspect of the women’s tennis program. That collection of players offers each athlete perspective about unfamiliar worldviews and life experiences.
“Everyone has different opinions, and we all respect them,” senior Marta Kowalska said. “We argue a lot about politics and religion and all these things, and sometimes it can get pretty heated, but we always end making jokes.”
Kowalska, who is from Krakow, Poland and just completed her fourth and final season in a prominent role for the Quakers, noted that the sophistication required of a group that tries to get people of such distinct backgrounds to mesh comfortably is one of her favorite things about the team.
“The fact that we can always share our opinions and be so different and learn so much from each other is really cool,” she said. “Penn is a diverse place in general, but our team is especially [so], and I love that aspect.”
That sentiment is shared by junior Carolyn Xie, who is one of six Americans — all of whom call either California or Florida home — on the 2019 roster. Xie cherishes the camaraderie that she and her fellow teammates have been able to build with time spent focusing on things apart from the sport that occupies so much of their lives.
“Even our conversations about global politics or international economics, it’s just interesting to see who grew up in different education systems and different cultures to see what their takes are, and those conversations are the best,” she said. “Especially on our trip to Harvard and Dartmouth, we were talking about international politics, and it’s those conversations, I think, that we’re going to miss with OJ and Marta graduating. Those are the moments I really cherish.”
Despite its affinity for topics that can be quite sensitive, the team’s wide range of experiences and interests extends beyond the intellectual realm. During pre-match warmups or long periods of travel, the team’s preferred music selection ranges in genre and country of origin from Eastern European DJs to Spanish EDM. On a recent road trip, players wanted to try a Moldovan restaurant, only to be met with dismay upon realizing that the spot didn’t offer delivery. The unique blend of people brings the group to new and interesting places, whether in discussion, on Spotify, or in search of a place to eat.
When considering the impressive success that women’s tennis has had with regard to creating a cohesive and unified team culture, it’s impossible to ignore the players responsible for developing that dynamic. Even more crucial, though, is to recognize the person who brought the players to the same place.
“[Sanela]’s such an expert coach, but what makes it even better is that she’s an amazing person who cares about us as players, as students, and most importantly, as people,” Xie said.
Kunovac’s ability and willingness to develop relationships that exist not only off the court, but that are also independent of the game of tennis, have endeared her to her players and fostered a sense of unity. In Marta Kowalska’s case — she committed to Penn having been in touch with Kunovac but without even taking an official visit to campus — Kunovac’s character was the ultimate selling point.
“We talked about tennis and about applying, but also we had conversations on other topics, and I was really attracted by her intelligence,” Kowalska recalled. “She was such an interesting person.”
Kunovac is in the rare position of being able to understand not only the situations of student-athletes trying to balance the academic rigor of an Ivy League institution and the commitment that comes with being a Division I athlete, but also the massive adjustment that international players make in order to move to and compete in a new country.
She moved to the United States from Bosnia at the age of 13, when she began training at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. The school also served as home to Singh, who is also a DP staffer, and sophomore Mimi Levine.
“A lot of people who used to be my competitors and my teammates [at IMG] are now coaches or main people in their federations, from Germany to Italy to Croatia to Poland to Russia,” Kunovac said. “[IMG] is like the United Nations of the best of the best.”
Those relationships have created a primary avenue for Kunovac when it comes to recruiting international players.
“Some [former teammates] are professional tennis players, others are in the world of tennis, so they’re my peers,” Kunovac said. “It doesn’t happen every year, but every once in a while, they’ll contact me and say ‘Hey, I have this girl, her name’s Marta [Kowalska], and she’s amazing in school,’ which is unique, because a lot of tennis players stop school when they’re 15 or 16.”
Alternatively, Kunovac stumbles upon some recruits out of sheer circumstance. Star freshman Iuliia Bryzgalova, who is from Moscow, Russia, got onto her coach’s radar because of a recommendation from men’s tennis senior Dmitry Shatalin, who is also from the Russian capital and knew Bryzgalova growing up.
“I’m grateful to [Dmitry] every day!” Kunovac said.
The coach continued to explain that, despite her team’s individuality, Penn women’s tennis isn’t exceedingly different from any other program.
“I wouldn’t think that culture-wise we’re different,” she said. “For all of us, the Penn brand is strong with the community, the aiming big, and the core values that we have.”
Nevertheless, Kunovac did identify what she sees as both a defining and distinguishing characteristic that stems from her players’ many backgrounds.
“Having a mix really helps with the value of gratitude,” she said. “We’re more aware of what we have.”
In Kunovac, Penn women’s tennis has a bountiful and nearby source of inspiration. The coach amassed career records of 68-35 and 39-32 in singles and doubles, respectively, for Penn, and she did it in an adopted home.
“I thought I could relate with [Sanela] well because she also grew up somewhere else, and she was very genuine and honest,” Kowalska said. “She seemed like a good person, and you could tell that she was really intelligent and cared about her players, and she really reminded me of my coach back home.”
With the 2019 season coming to a close and the graduations of Singh and Kowalska on the horizon, the program will rely on the strength it takes from its diversity in order to build on the past year’s successes. Kunovac and her players have for years now developed an environment that functions as a home away from home for student-athletes, whose lives before coming to Penn were entirely different.
For now, though, the players will appreciate what they have in Penn tennis, in their coach, and in each other.
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