After competing professionally across Europe for multiple years, junior Iuliia Bryzgalova decided to further her studies at Penn and has been dominating the women’s collegiate tennis world, currently sitting at No. 14 in Division I singles play.
While tennis might be a socially-distant sport, its players have still been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately for Bryzgalova, she has had more time to recover from an injury and has spent much of her time over the past year focusing on physical therapy and working on her fitness.
Although she was able to stay on campus for the fall semester, Bryzgalova has only recently been able to start playing tennis, relying sometimes on Drexel’s outdoor courts. Additionally, Penn women's tennis has been able to stay in touch, both personally and through team meetings with the coach. Nothing beats being on the court with her team, however, so Bryzgalova is looking forward to practices that are scheduled to start on Feb. 1.
"I really enjoy [practicing] at Penn. It distracts me from studying," Bryzgalova said. "When you get super into studying, you really need something, and tennis was that something for me, and probably always will be. I actually enjoy every single practice and every single minute we’re spending with the team.”
A big contributor to the reason Bryzgalova likes practicing with the Red and Blue is because of the team spirit that is felt among all members. Before coming to Penn, she spent much of her time practicing and competing across Europe, having only two months a year back home in Russia. Because of this, she wasn’t able to experience much connection with other tennis players.
"We didn’t really have a community, so in pro tennis, it’s mostly like you’re playing for yourself. Your team is basically your parents, your coaches, and that’s it," Bryzgalova said.
Although her primary focus earlier in her career was singles play, Bryzgalova currently competes in both singles and doubles for Penn. The focus placed on doubles since arriving on Penn's campus has been a big change for her. She has gone from being a doubles skeptic to liking it just as much as singles, some days even more.
"I never did it before I came to college," Bryzgalova said, "Doubles was always kind of a joke. I would do it just for warm-up, but ever since I got to college it became a more serious thing because a lot depends on [doubles] point[s]."
Beyond her practices becoming more focused on doubles strategy, Bryzgalova's experience with her coaches has changed greatly over the years. Instead of emphasizing technique, Penn women's tennis head coach Sanela Kunovac puts much more focus on the mental side of tennis. This means that not only does the team work more on strategy, but Bryzgalova also receives the emotional support that she needs to succeed.
"[Having a coach in college is] something like in the middle of a parent and a coach. Your life guru. I’ve always been super close to my coach and she’s super helpful and always listens to us," Bryzgalova said. "Ever since I got to college, you’re not playing for yourself anymore, you’re playing for the team, and that’s an amazing feeling. I really love it. So you feel like you’re not alone, and there are so many more people who support you and genuinely want you to win. So that’s different, and I love it much more.”
It’s this combination of support from her coaches and teammates that motivates Bryzgalova to go out and compete whenever she gets the chance. While she is remaining skeptical and avoiding false hope, she is looking forward to getting back out on the courts with her teammates as soon as possible.
Bryzgalova likely won’t be playing professional tennis once she leaves Penn, so if you want to see her favorite forehand (or backhand, depending on the day) in action, you better make sure to make it to Penn's tennis courts over the next two seasons.