If grit could be personified, freshman Sabine Rutlauka of women's tennis would present the perfect example. In individual sports such as tennis, there is no one to sub in, nowhere to hide when you make mistakes. Yet Rutlauka thrives under this limelight, displaying a tenacity to fight to the last point.
“One of the most impressive things about her is that she’s just a relentless fighter," coach Sanela Kunovac said. "Even if she loses a set and is down in the set, it’s never over with Sabine. She finds a way to snatch the victory from the jaws of defeat."
Rutlauka reflects her coach's sentiments, finding confidence in the driver's seat whenever she plays a match.
“I think there’s a reason some people choose individual sports," Rutlauka said. "I did so because I like to be in control of a situation. Even if it is bad, I will work and turn it around."
In her early years of playing, Rutlauka found tennis as just a hobby. But it gradually developed into an obsession as she would play three times a day, seven days a week.
“I started playing tennis when I was six because there were tennis courts near my house," she said. "We don’t have any high school sports, so it was basically your own initiative. My parents didn’t force me to do it either; it was completely because I loved it.”
Growing up playing on the junior circuit in Latvia, the individualism of tennis signaled a stark contrast from the experience of playing for the Red and Blue.
“Back home, you are basically on your own. Coming here, we are an individual sport, so to have the team spirit is a little harder, but we’re learning to make it work,” she said. “It helps with my game because sometimes you get emotional and then you think about how you are representing both your whole team, but also your school, and want to be your best self.”
The shift from the junior circuit to collegiate tennis was not an easy one, but Rutlauka was able to make the decision with confidence thanks to her family, and particularly her father.
“I am really grateful for my dad. He really created so many opportunities for me and I don’t think I’d be here without him. When speaking with the coach, he really advocated for me. He kind of loves to brag about me,” she commented with a laugh.
Collegiate sports are a distinctly American concept, a fact that Kunovac was cognizant of when helping Rutlauka settle into this environment.
“I think there is a big difference between juniors and college. In Latvia, they do not have organizations like the NCAA, the big production. Either you play professionally, or you go to school so there is no way to marry the two,” Kunovac said.
Before coming to Penn, Rutlauka considered playing professionally, especially with her achievements as Latvian national champion in U-18 singles, doubles, and mixed doubles. But she ultimately decided that a college education was the secure option for her future.
“I’ve seen so many girls who hit a certain level and are stuck, so I felt like I needed to go to college and have an education to fall back on. In schools like Penn, the athletes are financially supported and I am given a lot of opportunities, so that was a huge factor,” said Rutlauka.
Kunovac envisions a leading role within the team for Rutlauka as she grows more experienced over her collegiate career.
“Going into her junior and senior year, I see her leading the team and helping her teammates out, much like our current veteran cast is doing. She is such a strong athlete and fierce fighter that I think she could set an example for all her younger teammates in the following years,” said Kunovac.
“The sky is the limit for Sabine,” added Kunovac, who believes that Rutlauka could create what she wants out of the future and has the arsenal to do so.