You would never know it now, but when Anastasia Sokolova moved to the United States at the age of 14, she spoke very little English. However, armed with an incredible curiosity, an insatiable desire to succeed, and a Russian-to-English dictionary, this Illinois freshman has found ways to astound, both on and off the tennis court.
Growing up in St. Petersburg, Russia, Sokolova's parents, Alexander and Lidia, encouraged their daughter to participate in as many activities as possible. "My parents just signed me up. I played all kinds of sports when I was little," Sokolova explained. "I did swimming, dancing, basketball, running, they just put me into anything they could come up with, and honestly they put me in tennis because, my mom liked the way the girls looked in the white skirts running around."
Whether it was fashion or fate that led her to the game, the sport of tennis eventually opened a door to worlds of opportunities for Sokolova. The former Soviet states have produced countless tennis stars, but Sokolova took a much different path through the Russian tennis world than many of her famous compatriots. After her father died when she was eight, the family struggled financially, a situation that has influenced Sokolova to this day. "Tennis in Russia is really hard unless you have a lot of money, because everything is really expensive. My family didn't have a lot of money, but I met a really great coach that trained me for a reasonable price, that my family could afford."
It was through that coach, Igor Sokolova (no relation) that Anastasia first came to the United States. When she was 11 years old, she visited Florida for two weeks with a group headed by another local tennis coach, a close friend of Igor's. Able to speak only the most basic of greetings, Anastasia spent two weeks as the guest of Ellen and Wayne King, her host family. It was the first of three trips on which the Kings would host Sokolova. Having spent her 14 year old summer training at Florida's Eastlake Woodlands Country Club, Sokolova returned to Palm Harbor in October 2000 to continue training at the club and to attend an American high school for a semester.
On this scheduled three-month trip, Sokolova lived with a new family, the Cuhnas. There was an instant affection between Sokolova and her new host family. So much so that after the three months were up, all assumed she would stay in Florida. "It kind of came naturally. I'm not even sure we ever talked about it. They never brought up me leaving, and I didn't want to leave. I guess we never said, `Ok you're going to stay,' Sokolova recalls.
The hardest part was telling her mother that she planned to stay, but Lidia Sokolova knew what was best for her daughter. "She told me that whatever I think is right for me, is what I should do. She said that she would support me. I know how hard it was for her. My mom and I are really close."
As soon as she joined them, Bill and Leslie Cunha and their two sons Timothy and Matthew, welcomed Sokolova into their home and their family. Some minor sibling squabbles with her new brothers aside, Sokolova took to the Cuhna family immediately, to the point that she now considers Bill and Leslie her second parents, and Timothy and Matthew her new brothers. "I was pretty comfortable with them right away, because they are great people. We started getting along right away. The first day my mom (Leslie Cunha) and I went shopping. It was the hardest for me with the boys, because they didn't want another kid in the family, especially a girl."
Still with just passing English skills, when Sokolova enrolled at the local high school, she began taking "English as a second language" courses. Coupled with the classes, her inquisitive nature helped Sokolova quickly overcome the language barrier. "It was a challenge to try to communicate, but we figured out ways. I would always ask what does that word mean, what's this, and what's that. I carried around a little dictionary, but it was hard at first."
After adapting to living fulltime in the United States and speaking English almost exclusively, Sokolova's attention turned back to tennis. For the next two years she continued to train at Eastlake Woodlands, before joining up with coach Johnny Angel. Since Sokolova was not a US citizen, she could not participate in many of the junior national tournaments that play host to much of the country's collegiate recruiting. So instead, she focused on the local tournaments in Florida. At one such event, Illinois head coach Sujay Lama's brother saw her play and immediately called his brother. Soon after, Sokolova visited the Illinois campus, and knew that is where she wanted to play college tennis. "I visited the school and I absolutely loved it. I loved the architecture, I loved the feeling of the school, I loved everything. I especially loved the coaches and the team; the girls are amazing. I knew right away that this was the school I wanted to be at."
In her eight months at Illinois, Sokolova has seen time as a starter on the team, but a reccurring back injury has her currently sidelined. However, her time on the collegiate court has shown her that she is in a completely new environment. "(College tennis) is so much harder than anything you would expect. The conditioning, the lifting, and just the practices themselves are so much more demanding than anything I had ever done. It is really hard work. You have to go full intensity, full attention for two and a half hours straight, its definitely much harder, but you see better results as well."
Neither the work ethic required to succeed at the collegiate level on the court, nor in the classroom, has deterred Sokolova. An honor student in high school, she knows exactly where her drive to succeed comes from. "My mom was always really strict. She told me, `If you do something, you better do your best, otherwise it's not worth doing it.' I always want to be the best at whatever I do, but some times, that isn't a good thing though."
A good thing or not, her drive to be the best has provided her with opportunities she never imagined as a child in Russia. While Sokolova is not sure where her life will lead after her days of playing tennis are behind her, she plans on majoring in business administration and psychology. Whether or not her life will take her back to Russia or not, she doesn't know, but she knows it will always be her home and it is what has made her who she is today. "Russia is where I am from, it is who I am. My whole life experience has definitely been a good background to get me where I am. I think it helped me a lot, being used to hardships, and things like that. It makes me appreciate the things I have now."