Minium: ODU Tandem Aims to Win National Titles in NCAA Women’s Tennis Tournament

NORFOLK, Va. – More than perhaps any college spring sport, tennis attracts the most international players to America. And because so many great tennis players hail from Eastern Europe, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has had a major impact on some programs.

There is friction between Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian teammates at some schools. At other schools, Ukrainian players have been so worried about their families, or devastated by deaths of loved ones, that their performance suffered greatly. Some even quit the sport.

And who can blame them? Russia has carried out a brutal invasion in which tens of thousands of civilians have been killed and some cities essentially leveled to the ground by bombs and shells.

Although Ukrainian resistance has been much fiercer than most expected, there is no end in sight to the killing. Imagine how difficult it is to maintain your focus on playing tennis and going to class when your family is thousands of miles away in a war zone?

But at Old Dominion, a Ukrainian who has been sick with worry over her family, and a Byelorussian who opposes Russia’s war on Ukraine, could give the Monarchs their first national championship since 2005, when Anna Tunnicliffe Tobias won a sailing national title.

Yulia Starodubtseva, a Ukrainian who is ODU’s No. 1 player, is 12-2 against nationally-ranked opponents in singles, and has won the last 10 matches in a row against them. She is ranked 18th among NCAA singles players.

Yulia and Tatsiana Sasnouskaya, who is from Belarus, are 13-4 against nationally-ranked opponents in doubles and have won the last five. And they are rated the nation’s No. 8 doubles team.

Starodubtseva will begin play in the NCAA Singles Tournament on Monday afternoon, while her and Sasnouskaya will start doubles on Tuesday at the Khan Outdoor Tennis Complex in Champaign, Illinois.

Francois Le Tallec, the No. 1 player on the ODU men’s team, says if anything, “Yuliia and Tanya have gotten closer since the Russians invaded Ukraine.”

“They were friends before, but they became way more close after the invasion,” said the junior from suburban Paris, France. “I see them practicing together on the court quite often. You can tell they have a very unique bond.”

Yuliia is from Kakhovka, Ukraine, a working-class city and port that has been overrun by the Russians. Although Kakhovka saw weeks of intense fighting, the Russians are in full control of the area and so far have not harmed any her family members.

Yullia said before departing for Illinois on Friday that her family is fine.

WT-Yuliia-Duke

Tanya is from Minsk, Belarus, a country north of Ukraine sometimes referred to as “White Russia,” for historical reasons that are widely debated. Belarus is run by Alexander Lukashenko, a dictator who won the 2020 election in which he was accused of rampant election fraud.

He has brutally repressed opposition demonstrations and has close ties with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Belarus served as a staging point for Russian troops invading Ukraine.

And while she loves her country, Tanya is opposed to the invasion of Ukraine.

“Belarus, the Ukraine and the Russian empire, it’s so weird to me that we fought together (in World War II) and now we’re fighting each other,” she said.

“It would be better to put the resources they’re using in the war to develop your country.”

Tanya has been supportive of Yuliia from the day the invasion began. During ODU’s first match after the invasion, she encouraged her teammates to have Ukrainian flags painted on their arms and the team took a photo, again, at her best, after the match holding the Ukrainian flag.

“She asks me about my family, and that means so much to me,” Yuliia said. “We don’t talk much about the war. We don’t talk a lot about negative things, things that we can’t control.

“But Tanya has been so supportive of me and my family. I know she’s on my side and by my side as well. She’s not just my teammate, she’s my friend.”

Tanya agrees that their friendship is dear to her but says there is more going on when they take the court together than just friendship.

“We are very close friends,” she said. “I also have other close friends.

“But with Yuliia on the court, it’s different. The way we play together is different. We have a connection that is difficult to explain but it’s seamless.

“We never discuss the technical parts of the game because we don’t have to. We just see each other so well on the court. And when I’m with her, it’s a completely different feeling. I feel like I’m on the best place in the world. It’s like my safe zone.

“I feel very comfortable with her on the court.”

Perhaps their connection comes from their common roots. While tennis is often stereotyped as a country club sport, it is anything but at ODU, where coach Dominic Manila has built a nationally competitive program largely with blue-collar players.

ODU’s tennis facilities are as good or better than most Power 5 schools, and that allows Manilla to recruit great international players. But he says “We recruit blue-collar kids and we have a blue-collar program.”

The Monarchs employ a work ethic that allows them to beat better teams by being in better physical condition. And that, Manilla says, comes from the hunger in his players to succeed in spite of not always having had the private lessons or international tournament experience available to the well-heeled.

Marina Alcaide, a senior from Barcelona, ​​Spain, won the decisive match in the Conference USA Tournament that gave the Monarchs their second C-USA title in a row. And it was her work ethic that won the match.

“Marina ran harder than her opponent,” Manilla said. “She covered more steps, I’d say a couple of miles more than her opponent. She never looked tired. You could see it on match point. Her opponent was almost too tired to hold the racket.”

Although Manilla works his team hard, the desire to win comes from within, he said. He and assistant coach Jana Sokolenko often leave their office when the team is off because so many come into the Folkes-Stevens Tennis Center to work out.

Yuliia Starodubtseva and Tatsiana Sasnouskaya

NCAA rules forbid coaches from being present when players work out on their days off.

“If you tell them what to do and they do it, that’s not discipline, that’s obedience,” he said. “The discipline is within then. It comes from their parenting, their backgrounds.

“Very rarely do they take a true day off. And I often see them running, on their own, both before and after practice.

“Their desire to win, to excel, is something they brought to ODU with them.”

For Yuliia and Tanya, that drive came from their humble backgrounds.

Yuliia began playing tennis because her father wanted her to participate in a sport.

“I started playing tennis at a young age,” she said. “I had a coach who noticed that I was pretty good.”

When she was 10, she began playing full-time. She dominated people in her age group and also people a few years older than her. But finances limited her ability to compete in other countries.

“I started playing in international tournaments, but the financial part was hard,” she said. “I was from a small town. I mostly played in the Ukraine. I wanted to go pro, but instead, decided that playing in America, playing tennis and getting an education for free, made more sense.”

Tanya started playing tennis when she was six. She remembers her parents talking about sending her to tennis camp, but there was a court next to where she lived in Minsk, and that’s where she learned the game.

“There was a tennis coach there who had just come back from the United States, and he did a lot to help me,” she said. “By the time I was 10, I was crazy about tennis.”

She said her parents sacrificed greatly to send her to international tournaments. She also attempted to go pro, but in the end decided that coming to America was a far better opportunity.”

Dominic Manilla hugging Yuliia Starodubtseva

Both learned of ODU from tennis players from their counties. Tanya knew Sokolenko, who is also from Minsk, and that helped her decide that ODU was the place for her.

“I feel we both pretty much escaped from the same environment,” Tanya said. “We both grew up pretty similar classes. We were middle class, but not from rich families. Both struggled with the financial side of being a tennis player.

“I know Yuliia’s been at the same bus station at 5 am, headed to tennis practice.”

Yuliia said “I grew up middle class. But middle class in Ukraine is not the same as middle class in the United States or Western Europe.

“The middle class is much better off here.”

Both say they plan to remain in America when they are finished at ODU.

Tanya is a sophomore majoring in cybersecurity. Given the demand for cybersecurity graduates, she surely will find a job in America.

“I like America a lot,” she said. “There are so many job opportunities here.”

It in fact angers her how little workers in Belarus receive in compensation compared to the United States.

“Our people are well-educated, very smart, very kind and very hard-working,” she said. “I know a lot of people in my country would have such a different life if there were here working the same jobs.

“It’s very sad.”

Yuliia, who is a fifth-year senior, hopes to go pro. Although she misses her family, for now she plans to remain in the United States. Besides, she’s not sure if she could even visit her family now that her hometown is occupied by Russia.

Yuliia Starodubtseva and Tatsiana Sasnouskaya

Sparked by a story that ran on odusports.com during the early spring, Yuliia has drawn a ton of media coverage, both in The Virginian-Pilot and on the three local TV stations. Those TV reports wound up being aired in markets all over the country.

Story on ODU’s Yulia Starodubtseva and Yehven Sirous

Manilla says that platform helped Yuliia stay focused on tennis.

“She was really touched by the first article written about her,” Manilla said. “Then she began getting a lot of positive publicity for Ukraine.

“She has a lot of Ukrainian friends who are active on social media. And I think that all helped her find her calling. She’s one of the best players in the nation and she’s been able to bring attention to her country.

“She’s discovered that he can be much more than just an athlete. She can be an inspiration.”

In fact, she has repeatedly asked a question that resonates.

“Russia is such a big country,” she said. “Why do they need more?”

With 6.6 million square miles of territory, Russia has five times as much land as all the other European countries combined and holds 11 percent of the world’s land mass.

Putin has claimed he is rescuing ethnic Russians from persecution by a “fascist” Ukrainian government, even though Ukraine has a democratically elected government.

In that sense, Yuliia and her family would be classified as ethnic Russians by Putin since they speak Russian at home. Russian is also the language that she and Tanya used to communicate.

Tatsiana Sasnouskaya

But Yuliia speaks fluent Ukrainian and Tanya fluent Byelorussian.

“I am not Russian,” Yuliia says defiantly. “I am Ukrainian.”

Tanya said she’s amazed by how focused Yuliia has been on tennis in spite of what is going on in her homeland.

“She has been the leader of this team ever since I got here,” she said. “With the kind of pressure she’s been dealing with, the results have been amazing. She beat the top player in the country. She’s beaten others in the Top 20.”

And yet, Tanya said, she’s also been patient.

“She never puts any pressure on me, which is different than other people I’ve played with,” she said.

“And we have a common goal. We also know the best parts of each other.

“Sometimes, when I’m feeling overwhelmed, I know she has my back. I know she thinks I’m going to play well and that makes it easy to think I’m going to play well.”

Tanya also feels some pressure to perform well in doubles competition.

“I’m kind of nervous but I also feel a sense of responsibility because it’s going to be my last college tennis with Yuliia, my last tournament with her,” she said.

“I really want her to remember this one. I think we have a good chance of winning.

“We’re going to be aggressive from the first shot.”

Yulia goes a step further.

“We’re going to win the national title,” she said.

“We’re determined we’re going to win.”

For her school, her teammate and her country.

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