May 27, 2008
Most of the fans cheering on the Baylor women's tennis team during this month's NCAA Tournament probably didn't realize how close the program came to missing out on arguably the top player in the Lady Bears' history, senior Zuzana Zemenova.
A native of Kosice, Slovakia, Zemenova won the NCAA Singles Tournament as a freshman in 2005. She has been named the Big 12 Conference Player of the Year in each of her four seasons, the first athlete in Big 12 history to do that in any sport, and has earned all-America honors in singles each of her first three seasons, also a first among Big 12 competitors.
And yet, both Zemenova and Baylor almost missed out on it all.
"I was finishing high school and wanted to turn pro," Zemenova says. "I didn't want to go [to the United States for college]."
"I was really fortunate," head coach Joey Scrivano remembers. "My first call to her, she passed the phone to her coach, who was the brother of one of my former players. Her coach was completely onboard [with Zemenova playing collegiate tennis], and even more importantly, her parents were onboard. They understood the importance of getting an education."
Zemenova's parents and coach won out in the end, convincing her to at least give collegiate tennis a shot. But when she got to Baylor, she found herself struggling with both classwork and tennis.
"I didn't speak English. I was struggling in school," she says. "My mom encouraged me to just stay for a couple of months. If I didn't like it, then I could come home."
"Her teammates really helped her through that first year," Scrivano says. "It was day to day, her whole first semester. I'd go to morning workouts, and I was always worried that she wouldn't be there."
Zemenova worked on her English with the help of teammates, Baylor's academic support advisors, and a giant English-Slovak dictionary that Scrivano and Zemenova agree she carried everywhere.
Workouts, too, were trouble.
"My first workout, I was almost dying," she says. "But I'm not a person who is going to give up. I somehow knew in the back of my mind that this was the right place.
"The workouts helped me to push myself and realize I could do something more than I thought. I would say I was done running, and they would say to run some more, and I would find out that I could run a lot more. It helped me not just in workouts, but in school and everything."
By the spring of her freshman year, she was having fun, and it showed up in the results. She won 17 of her last 18 matches, including six straight at the NCAA Singles Tournament to become the first unseeded NCAA champion in women's tennis history. Yet even then, she wasn't sure if she would come back to Baylor.
"After my freshman year, I thought maybe I would turn pro. But then I thought maybe it was better for me to finish school, because it's hard to come back later," she says.
If Zemenova had left, it's unlikely that the Lady Bears would have put together the best four-year stretch in program history. During Zemenova's time in Waco, Baylor has won all four Big 12 regular season titles and three of four conference tournaments. In the NCAA Tournament, the women have made at least the round of 16 in each of the last three years, advancing to the quarterfinals in 2006. (See story below for 2008 season update.)
Individually, Zemenova's 115 career wins are second-best in school history, and ended her Big 12 career with a 37-0 conference record despite playing every one of those matches at No. 1 singles. Her 96 career wins in doubles matches are the most in school history, and her 34 doubles wins this season mark a single-season record.
"For all her accolades and success, you'd never know it meeting her. She's such a sweet person," Scrivano says. "You want your star to be coachable, to have a great attitude, to have a great sense of sportsmanship, and she has the total package."
So the lingering question is, after graduating in May, will she now take the opportunity to play professionally? Zemenova says she doesn't know. But she is sure of one thing--she's glad she didn't leave Baylor early.
"That was the best decision of my life, that I stayed here."
Baylor tennis fans are equally happy that she did.