A Transatlantic Transition
May 1, 2008
by Jeff Smith
Very rarely does Northwestern women's tennis coach Claire Pollard recruit international students. Herself a native of England, Pollard says often times it is tough get non-English speaking recruits to meet the high academic requirements at Northwestern. But when she phoned Moscow, Russia, to inquire about Maria Mosolova, Pollard was surprised at what she heard.
"Her English was outstanding," Pollard said. "Calling Russia is always an adventure. Sometimes it's like talking to you and sometimes it's like talking to someone halfway around the world. There are times when you have to be slow and respectful, like 'Do...you...understand...me," but that was not the case with Maria."
Mosolova was just happy to hear from Pollard, period.
The talented international product knew not one thing about American universities and she reached out to Northwestern by e-mail only because USNews.com said it was one of the top academic schools in the country. In fact, that was her only criteria. And after she e-mailed Pollard, she eagerly awaited a response, but one did not soon come. She had pretty much come to terms that the Wildcat coach was not interested.
As it turns out, Pollard received the recruit's e-mail at a time when she was not allowed to respond in compliance with NCAA rules. When the recruiting period began, Pollard reached out to her international contacts and heard Mosolova was one to take a serious look at.
Good thing she did. Not only is her new Wildcat currently ranked fifth in the nation in singles, she was recently named the Big Ten's Freshman and Athlete of the Year - a feat that was a first for Northwestern since 2005.
"We knew she was going to be a good player when we recruited her, but we didn't know how smooth the transition would be," Pollard said.
The Wildcat coach took the extra step in making sure that Mosolova understood the environment she would be getting herself into after the two met at a tournament in Hungary. She remained in contact with her new recruit well after she committed to Northwestern - sight unseen mind you. Mosolova did not step foot on campus until January of 2007, months after she signed on to play for the Wildcats.
"When I first came here, I didn't know what to expect and if the tennis program was even that good," Mosolova said. "In Russia, we don't have college tennis, so I am just now getting used to the Big Ten and NCAA."
If she picked up the Cliffs Notes guide to Big Ten women's tennis, she would quickly find out that the Northwestern program is a little more than good. It is actually quite impressive.
This past weekend the Wildcats earned their record 10th-consecutive Big Ten Championship and have now won their last 63 conference matches. Northwestern has been the nation's top-ranked team for the majority of the 2008 campaign.
Pollard says that Mosolova's easy transition into American tennis has helped the Wildcats excel on the court this season. She says her talented freshman, who was awarded the team's lone scholarship for this season as is the only newcomer, is an "extremely low maintenance" player.
"The only thing she is demanding of is time on the court," Pollard said of the response that would please any coach in the country.
Mosolova, the Wildcats' No. 1 singles player, enters the NCAA Tournament 35-4 (.897%) on the season.
Pollard points out that what is most impressive about Mosolova is how she adapted so quickly to the team concept. In Russia, players are used to competing for themselves and in American college tennis, the fall season is the individual portion of the year. Mosolova was shocked to hear there was anything but team tennis here when she arrived in the States.
"When I first came here, I didn't know there were individual rankings," she said. "Claire told me I was going to be ranked high after the fall season and I asked why?"
The team concept has long been the secret to success in Evanston as Pollard has not allowed her players to feel content with earning a scholarship to play collegiately. She wants her players to compete beyond the college level, which is certainly something Mosolova will try to do down the road.
You can tell that the Wildcat freshman has bought into the system by the way she downplays her postseason conference accolades. She is much more focused on the team's efforts and points out that as the top-ranked team heading into NCAA play, several teams will be playing them with nothing to lose.
"Being ranked number one gives you confidence, but it also gives you a lot of pressure," she said.
This season Mosolova has impressed the team and the coaching staff with her unshakable will to win. Pollard refers to her top player as "so darn solid" and notes that her commitment and dedication to winning as made her one of the top threats in the country.
"She'll look across the other side of the net and it's like she asks her opponent, 'How hard do you want to work today?' She will take a few games to evaluate the girl and then outwork her," Pollard said. "She presents a work ethic that makes most girls not want to go the distance with her. It's a very powerful message."
But Pollard admits that she has also had to deliver a message of her own to Mosolova earlier in the season. Back in the fall, Mosolova was having a difficult time keeping her emotions in check and often bouncing her racket off the court in disgust. It was a move that may have been accepted in Russia, but not in Evanston.
"I was really too emotional," Mosolova said. "That's just the way it used to be like at home."
Pollard made her freshman know that if she saw her bounce a racket again, the entire team would run.
Message delivered, and understood.
"I was incredibly impressed with her ability to accept that responsibility and not wanting to let her team down," Pollard said.
The NU coach points out that the squad has also helped their teammate stay in control on the court throughout the season. Remembering back to her research on Mosolova, Pollard said that she saw some irregularities in her matches that she chalked up to mental lapses.
But all of those things are in the past. There are very few lapses nowadays as Mosolova as shown just how dominant of a player she can be on the collegiate tennis scene. Her sole focus now is helping the top-ranked Wildcats win a national championship.
Regardless of the outcome, the 2008 campaign as undoubtedly been an impressive start to Mosolova's career in Evanston.
"I think this has been a great experience for me," she said. "There have been lots of changes for me from being so far away from home and I still have a lot of work to do."
Pollard says that is proof of the work ethic and dedication her talented freshman displays.
"I think Maria is striving to see how far tennis can take her and using college as a vehicle for that."
A path, like the young Russian's English, is easy for Pollard to understand.