Women’s tennis senior Marija Curnic was playing a tournament in Florida almost exactly a year ago when she received the news that Ivy League sports were to be canceled. Fortunately for the Quakers, she is planning on coming back for a fifth year, continuing her role as one of the team’s strongest leaders and players.
Growing up in Croatia, Curnic found a love for tennis at the age of five. Despite the strong competition, she performed well in all of her tournaments and started to take tennis more seriously when she was 11, playing for the Croatian national team. Eventually, she found herself on a much larger stage, competing in tournaments across Europe at the age of 15.
It was at this point in time that Curnic drew the attention of women’s tennis coach Sanela Kunovac, who, as it happened, also spent time growing up in Croatia.
“I have friends and coaches over there who I stay in touch with. They sent me a picture of one of the articles that came out and it was about Marija. It was about a young Croatian tennis player who was hitting her stride, getting really good results, and starting to look for colleges. It described her as a person, her background, and her family, so I really wanted to get to know her.”
After a phone call, Kunovac already felt a strong connection. For Curnic, if she wanted to stay in Europe, she would have had to choose between continuing her tennis career and furthering her education. Because of this, the decision wasn’t difficult for her to come to Penn.
“Coach is the reason I chose Penn," Curnic said. "She’s been more than a coach here, she’s the person I went to when I had personal problems, just someone I could talk to. Coach has been a very positive part of my Penn experience.”
When asked what her goals were for Curnic, Kunovac did not first mention improving her strokes or her strategy. Rather, she expressed a desire for her player to complete her degree to the highest level, graduate, and successfully move into the workforce. Clearly their relationship goes beyond tennis, and it has been a major component of the success the two have had over the past few years.
This focus on more than just tennis technique is a major difference between the coaching Curnic received in Croatia versus her time at Penn.
“What I had at home was more like ‘let’s put a lot of practice hours in and let’s not look at the psychological perspective’", Curnic said. "Here in college, because we’re a team, we scout other teams, and it’s a different approach, so it shifts the culture a lot.”
Beyond the coaching staff, Curnic has also relied greatly upon and come to love her teammates on the tennis team.
“There was definitely a cultural shock. It took me a full semester to wrap my head around what was happening. It was really helpful because the tennis team was very diverse, we had people from India, Singapore, Morocco, Poland, Russia, so they went through a smiler thing and they helped me navigate school and practice.”
One of these international students who now leads the team alongside Curnic is junior Iulia Bryzgalova. The two played doubles together in the previous year. In fact, they have known each other from playing the same tournaments in Europe since they were 13.
“We were growing up in pretty similar family cultures, and in some way, our dads are similar when it comes to tennis, and sometimes we make fun of it, and it’s just amazing,” Bryzgalova said.
Over the past month, the team has been able to start practicing and it has been “rejuvenating” as described by Kunovac. She was pleased with the members of the team staying in touch with their tennis skills, particularly by Curnic.
“I was really bummed about there being no Ivy League season, but when this waiver came and we heard she could come back, I was like my single goal as far as she is concerned is to have her walk away with an Ivy League ring, and I think that’s her goal too so we are completely aligned on that.”
Curnic is happy to be back with the team practicing like normal, and she has come to appreciate practices more than ever.
“I hope to get a full season next year and enjoy every single match next season with the girls and the team," Curnic said. "I hope to get proper closure.”