By BEN JOHNSON
Broken English is not all that uncommon for members of Northeastern State’s tennis team.
There is a general understanding of the language, and team members can churn out fluid sentences. But on scale of one to 10, Lucia Cerchlanova says she’s still somewhere in the five to seven range — in other words, it’s a work in progress.
“I don’t think I’ve mastered yet,” Cerchlanova said, laughing as she describes her English excellence. “I’m in the process of mastering it.”
Such is life for nearly 90 percent of NSU’s tennis team. Most hail from nations on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
Ivana Belejova, Martina Bruzikova and Cerchlanova are all from Slovakia. Also from central Europe is Barbora Jirickova, a Czech Republic native. Jeanna Mallem’s homeland is France, and Kristina Savchenkov represents one of the largest cities in the world, Moscow.
The only non-European athletes are Houda Bellamine and Kate Nesbitt. One is from northern Africa — Bellamine calls Casablanca, Morocco, home — while Nesbitt’s hometown is only roughly 300 miles away from Tahlequah, in Rolla, Mo.
The RiverHawks certainly have an international flavor. But like most Division II tennis programs, that’s not all that unusual.
The path to college tennis is vastly different for those who come from overseas. There is no high school tennis to showcase specific skills. It’s all about how you look on film.
Allow Savchenkov to explain the process.
“You record you playing tennis, and you create a resume with all the tournaments that you’ve played,” said Savchenkov, a 17-year old freshman for the RiverHawks. “Then you put it on a website and coaches come talk to you. They call you or email you.”
Same goes for Cerchlanova.
“In Slovakia, we don’t play high school sports,” Cerchlanova said. “We have clubs, and you have to practice there and pay for it on your own. So I did it. I recorded myself playing tennis and sent it to coaches. I had several choices and I chose here.”
Belejova’s path to NSU is similar — with a slight variation.
“I knew a girl from Slovakia that was playing tennis at NSU, so she kind of let the coach know stuff like, ‘oh I know this girl and she plays good,’” Belejova said. “Then I made a video of myself, and I sent it to her. Then we just had to communicate.”
When Savchenkov arrived in the United States of America, one simple facial expression caught her off guard.
“People are so different here,” she said. “For example, in Russia, no one smiles. Like if you go up to someone on the street and ask, ‘how are you doing?’, people would say, ‘do I know you, or something?’ That’s a huge difference.
“My first week here was a big shock. Everyone here was asking how I was doing, and I think that’s the biggest difference [with back at home].”
Cerchlanova said she couldn’t identify any huge cultural clashes, saying instead that her biggest hurdle was learning a different language.
Belejova pinpointed the melting-pot effect in the United States.
“There are a lot of nationalities over here,” she said.
For all Savchenkov, Cerchlanova and Belejova, the most notable difference was the food.
“It’s absolutely different because we don’t eat any burgers,” Cerchlanova said. “And our biggest meal is lunch. In America, your biggest meal is dinner, so it was a really big difference for me.”
In an effort to make food she’s familiar with, Savchenkov began making her own meals when she moved to American. That quickly changed, though.
“I used to cook a lot. When I moved here, I would buy food and cook a lot,” Savchenkov said. “But after one semester, I became so lazy, so I just eat at the Cafe or eat out. My teammates say that’s how Americans live, so I don’t even feel bad.”
With the their families nearly halfway on the other side of the globe, NSU’s tennis players have resorted to using Skype as a way to stay in touch with loved ones back home.
“I talk to my parents almost every day,” Savchenkov said. “I call or Skype them.”
Cerchlanova used to chat with her parents on a daily basis. Now the Skype conversations are less frequent.
“First semester, it was every day,” Cerchlanova said of communicating with her family back home. “This semester, we are so busy and I feel like I’m OK. So now it’s like once a week.”
Time after tennis
With Belejova as the only senior on the team, most of NSU’s players have plenty of time to think about their careers later.
But the biggest decision for all is whether to return home or establish residence in the United States.
“I have not decided yet,” Belejova said of her plans after college. “I’m looking for jobs over here, but I’ve also applied to schools in Slovakia and Australia. So I’m going to wait and see.”
With staying in Tahlequah likely out of the question, Savchenkov is eying a future in a big American city.
“I want to stay here, but probably not in Oklahoma,” she said. “I really like big cities. New York, maybe. But it’s so difficult to find a job there, so maybe Florida. I’d like to be in either New York or Florida.”
Tourney on tap
As for this week, Northeastern State will try to advance past the Round of 16 in the NCAA tournament. The RiverHawks, coming off a 5-0 win over Central Oklahoma for a first-round victory in the NCAA tournament, will take on BYU-Hawaii Wednesday in Surprise, Ariz. The two clubs will clash at 7 p.m.
This will be NSU’s 13th appearance in the NCAA tournament and the first under coach Amanda Stone. This is the RiverHawks’ eighth time in the Sweet 16, and with a win over BYU-Hawaii, NSU would reach the NCAA quarterfinals for the fourth time in school history.