INSIDE THE MONARCHY - Women's Tennis Program Showing Its Talent
INSIDE THE MONARCHY
Women’s tennis program showing its talent and showing off its facility as well
by Rich Radford
Conference USA will call Norfolk home two weeks from now when the league’s women’s tennis championships rolls into the Folkes/Stevens Tennis Center April 16-20. Coach Dominic Manilla sees it as a two-pronged opportunity. First, the Monarchs get to show off a really nice facility that will serve the tournament well. Second, the Monarchs have home court advantage for a young team that is on the rise.
Manilla threw out the idea of hosting last year as the Monarchs visited Houston, Texas, for the Conference USA tournament.
“With the Olympic sports, it’s always an opportunity to sell yourself and I put forward the idea of us hosting at the tournament meeting while we were down there,” Manilla said. “When I got back, Bruce Stewart and Wood Selig were all for it.”
With the senior associate athletic director and the athletic director behind the idea, it was set that ODU would host. Now came the challenge of hosting with a purpose, that being to finish well enough and strong enough to make it to the event’s semifinals two weeks from now. For that to happen, Manilla needed a ridiculously young roster to come through for him. To this point, it has.
With sophomores Nikol Hristova and Ivana Vukovic occupying the Nos. 1 and 4 slots in the lineup and freshmen Ingrid Vojcinakova and Marijana Novakovic holding down the No. 2 and 3 spots, the Monarchs are a squad built for the future and hoping to make noise in the present.
They will play their last two regular-season home matches on Friday and Sunday, both days at noon, as they host South Alabama and Morgan State. The Sunday sets marking senior day for Melissa Esnal Olguin and Nika Khmolovska. After that, it will be road matches at VCU and Georgetown to prep for the league tournament.
Hristova has excelled in the top slot this season, posting a 9-4 record. As she and her coach sat in the women’s tennis office Tuesday, Manilla concurred that he’d subtly challenged Hristova to be the team’s spark at the top of the lineup … and that she had responded.
“Soon after she got here, I knew we had an impact player on our hands,” Manilla said. “But, she was in a new land and a little homesick, so I had to pick the right moments for motivation and the right ways to motivate.”
Hristova admitted to a bit of homesickness last spring.
“I’m an only child,” said the Bulgarian native who hails from Sofia. “I missed home and my parents. But me being their only child, they missed me more.”
After four months back home, she returned to ODU with a new drive to succeed.
“The thing about athletes that play individual sports is you don’t really need to monitor them out of season and watch what they eat or coach them on how they train,” Manilla said. “Nikol went home and entered some professional tournaments (as an amateur) and kept playing. When she returned to school she was ready to really play. And she had a better gauge of the responsibility it takes to play at the top of the ladder.”
Manilla’s entire starting lineup is made up of foreign players, all from eastern European countries. Manilla said it takes a little bit of time for the European players to develop a chip on their shoulders, to get the college game, to grow distaste for the other programs in the region like Virginia, Virginia Tech, William and Mary and VCU. But once they get there, they use the newfound edge to their advantage.
They will need it in the next two years if ODU’s women’s tennis program is to reach the levels to which Manilla aspires. Conference USA tennis is quite strong from a national standpoint. Tulsa is ranked 19th in the country while Rice ranks 25th. A year ago, three teams from Conference USA received outright bids to the NCAA Tournament. And while the ACC, the SEC and the Pac-12 are the elite conferences in women’s tennis, Conference USA is next in line in the pecking order and hoping to close ground.
The 5-foot-8 Hristova, a communications major, has taken to the American college game because she has the tools to do so. She’s long and lean, which allows her to play a north-south game and come to the net. But having grown up on clay, she honed her baseline game first.
She could be coming into her own at the perfect time. The entire roster could be, for that matter. For in two weeks ODU has an opportunity to showcase not only its tennis facility but its program, a young program on the rise.