When a late winter chill arrived at Northern Kentucky University, the Norse tennis teams made the trip to a warm, indoor facility to continue practices and matches.
It was a far different experience growing up for Klara Skopac. In her home country of Croatia, even the indoor courts didn’t provide an escape from the frigid winter weather.
“People and kids played tennis on indoor courts and are often cold,” Skopac said. “They would have to wear three layers of clothes. My water used to get frozen on the court. That’s how cold it would be.”
Skopac is one of seven NKU tennis players born outside the United States. Each of them took very different paths to wind up in Highland Heights.
For the Romanian-born Adrian Isache and the German-born Lukas Clemens, the climate in the Midwest was similar to the climate back home.
“We have a lot of indoor courts,” Isache said. “In Romania, it’s cold four or five months a year, so we play a lot of indoor tennis and a lot of indoor tournaments.”
Like Skopac, Clemens started at Nicholls State in Louisiana before transferring to NKU. Starting in Cajun country provided more challenges.
“The language at the start, since I was in Louisiana, the accent there was a bit harder to understand,” Clemens said. “Other than that, the food and climate were different there. Here is where I’m more comfortable because the climate is like home.”
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While Skopac, Isache and Clemens were all used to the cold weather, this was not the case for Yasmine Xantos. From the Gold Coast in Australia, cold weather wasn’t something she had to deal with growing up.
“I never lived in snow,” Xantos said, laughing. “It was just for skiing vacations for one week only!”
Fellow countrywoman Hailey Shanahan, who finished her NKU career on April 24, didn’t have to wait long after arriving in the U.S. to get her first taste of snow.
“I arrived in Michigan in January, so, in the middle of winter coming from Australian summer,” Shanahan said, laughing.
Another Norse tennis player who didn’t see snow growing up was Jody Maginley. The resident of St. John’s, Antigua and Barbuda, discovered different challenges when he moved to Florida two years prior to coming to NKU.
“I think the biggest change for me, moving to the United States, was the structure,” Maginley said. “Everything is structured: the school, the education system. Everything about the United States is more structured than back home. I think we live a little more stress-free. Here, there are a lot more rules to follow.”
His teammate, the Hungary-born Mate Virag, spent his first week in the United States on Northern Kentucky University’s campus.
“The first time I came here was starting my freshman year in August 2013,” Virag said. “I was only here a week before school started. That was my first time in America. At first, it was a little lonely, because when I got to campus there was nobody here. As school started, everybody came and it was a lot of fun. Everyone was friendly and really nice.”
These seven international students make up almost half of the NKU tennis team.
The experience she was looking for
Skopac grew up in Rijeka, Croatia, on the northwest coast of Croatia. After starting at Nicholls State, she transferred to Northern Kentucky University.
Coming to the United States, especially to Louisiana, was something completely different for Skopac.
“It was a big change,” Skopac said. “It was nothing like I expected it to be, but it was nice. I guess Louisiana wasn’t for me. Then I came here and I loved it. This was the experience that I was searching for.”
There was a bit of a language barrier for Skopac when she first arrived in the US.
“I knew English pretty good and I spoke English but I didn’t really know academic English,” Skopac said. “I was struggling in school at the start. I think I got used to it pretty fast.”
She said communication with her teammates was a bit of a challenge at times.
“They often had to repeat themselves sometimes,” Skopac said with a laugh. “Especially people from Australia because they talk so fast! It’s ridiculous!”
While Skopac has enjoyed her experience, she still gets homesick from time to time.
“I miss it a lot,” Skopac said. “I live on the coast almost right on the beach, so I miss that a lot. I miss my bulldogs. I have two little dogs, two schnauzers. I miss my coach back home because he used to be my best friend.”
Still, the experience at NKU has been one to remember for Skopac.
“The facilities in the school are amazing,” Skopac said. “The tennis courts, both outdoor and indoor, are really good. Both coaches are really experienced and they’re able to help me with anything I need. Also, my teammates are supportive and they’re able to help me when I need them.
“They’re amazing, both teammates and coaches, and I love them so much!”
From Romania to Montana
Isache had to deal with winter weather a little harsher than both his home country and Kentucky when he first arrived in the United States.
“The first time I went to the United States was in January 2014,” Isache said. “I went to Montana for a semester. Then I transferred here in the fall of 2014. It was different in January and it was different in May too. I remember when it was May 9th and it snowed.”
Isache is from Targu Neamt, in the northeastern part of Romania.
“It’s kind of a historic part of Romania,” Isache said. “It’s really beautiful. It was really good growing up there. I always enjoy going back home. The weather is similar to here.”
One thing surprised Isache when he arrived in the United States.
“It was really surprising to me how open-minded people were,” Isache said. “They’re embracing any culture and any kind of behavior. I think that’s the most surprising to me.”
The experience of going to school at NKU and playing on the tennis team is something Isache has enjoyed.
“Going to NKU is a great experience,” Isache said. “Going to school, being a part of the athletic department, being a part of the tennis team, meeting new people every day, that’s what I was looking for. New experiences, experiencing new cultures, that’s what I’ve gotten out of it and I’ve really enjoyed it.”
Part of that experience has been making life-long friends.
“I’ve met my teammates and they’re my friends and we’ll remain friends forever,” Isache said. “Also, being part of the team, being able to compete against other universities, that’s one thing I enjoy very much.”
Team tennis a new experience
Growing up in Losheim am See in southwestern Germany, Clemens had a much different tennis experience at home.
“I grew up playing tennis my whole life,” Clemens said. “I was training in a federation. It was more of a professional setting. It was not as much of a team setting. It was more of an individual sport. That is what’s very refreshing being on a team.”
Playing on a team in an individual sport is something unique in college tennis compared to other college sports.
“That’s why tennis is such a tough sport,” Clemens said. “You’re still playing for yourself but you always have to care about your teammates on the other courts. It’s always a thrill on the court. You have to fight for yourself and you have to fight for your teammates and try to give them as much as you can from the outside.”
Clemens and his family visited New York City for 10 days during his first trip to the United States. Stories came over to Europe about what college tennis was like.
“It’s been great so far for me,” Clemens said. “I’ve not even been here one year, but I can already say it’s the best thing I could have done to come here after my old school. I’m really happy and I’m looking forward. I want to see what the season will bring.”
The entire experience is something Clemens has enjoyed.
“I can do my school, I have a great education and I can play tennis, the sport that I love,” Clemens said. “It’s not like a team, it’s like a family. It’s just a nice feeling to be here.”
Cricket or tennis?
For Maginley growing up in St. John’s, Antigua and Barbuda allowed him to play two of the sports he loved. At the age of 15, he had to choose whether he would play cricket or tennis.
“Back home there are not too many tennis players,” Maginley said. “So that’s why I moved away to the academies that had a bunch more people like me that I could play with and practice with and move to the next level with.”
Maginley’s father was a professional tennis player. With cricket a huge part of the culture of his home country, the decision wasn’t an easy one.
“I just loved both sports,” Maginley said. “I had to make a decision about my education and which one I truly loved more. Also, I think there was a lot of politics in cricket back home at the time, so that turned me away from the sport.”
While academy tennis is typically an individual endeavor, the move to NKU allowed him to compete in team tennis, which is a much different experience.
“The team atmosphere has been special,” Maginley said. “I haven’t had anything like it before in tennis. It’s definitely one I’m going to remember when I’m moving on.”
With several players graduating last season, Maginley said it took a while for the new team to come together. Now he feels they are playing good team tennis.
“The last couple wins have been really good team wins,” Maginley said. “Every single person is performing on different days. We don’t have to rely on the same people every single time. That takes a lot of stress off of each other. We can just go out and play freely.”
It has been the bond the tennis team has forged that will be something he doesn’t forget.
“We just have so much fun together,” Maginley said. “The friendship we’ve had, the close bond we’ve had with each other, I think that’s the most special thing about NKU.”
It’s been a tough season for Xantos, who had wrist surgery in October. She is still waiting to be fully cleared to return to action.
Still the native of the Gold Coast in Australia has a big smile when talking about her experience with the NKU tennis team.
“I love it,” Xantos said. “I really like that I got the opportunity to play the sport I love at a collegiate level and study. In Australia, you choose one: you go professional or you go to school. There’s no such thing as a sports scholarship. The opportunity I’ve gotten here I’m so grateful for. I love that I could play.”
Growing up in a country with a rich tennis history, Xantos knew at an early age this was the sport for her.
“I knew I wanted to be a tennis player since I was four years old,” Xantos said. “I was carrying around a racket when it was taller than me. I was fortunate enough to come to Florida and I played at IMG Academies before coming up here to Northern.”
Life at the IMG Academies was a rigorous schedule of tennis and academics. From 6 a.m. to noon, Xantos played tennis. From 1 p.m. until 6, she went to school.
It also exposed her to classmates from around the world and allowed her to travel to tournaments worldwide.
“I liked being able to experience different cultures, having friends from all over the world,” Xantos said. “I also enjoyed being able to travel a lot because of tennis and going to different tournaments everywhere. Having that cultural awareness and being able to talk with lots of different people from everywhere is something that’s just truly incredible. I love that’s what the sport was able to bring me.”
Xantos’ first goal is to get back on the tennis court. As for her future plans after college, she’s still undecided.
“I’d love to play in some professional tournaments or even money tournaments just for fun because I love the sport,” Xantos said. “I’m either going to do my Master’s program here in the United States or follow wherever my career takes me. Just get the best job out of college and start my career.”
For now, Xantos and her teammates will continue to enjoy their time with their new extended family. A family from all over the world brought together by the sport of tennis.
For Shanahan, she made a quick escape from the snowy climate of Western Michigan. She transferred to Temple Community College. After spending a year in Temple, Texas, she transferred to NKU for the 2014-2015 season.
Like so many of her international teammates, the decision to come to the United States for college allowed her to continue her tennis career while pursuing an education.
“I had wanted to come to America to do college since I was 14,” Shanahan said. “I’ve been playing tennis since I was four. It was a huge adjustment to college tennis because we don’t have anything like college sports (in Australia). It’s so unique to America.”
Shanahan is from Sale in Australia, located in the state of Victoria on the southeast corner of Australia. Sale is located 132 miles from Melbourne, the home of tennis’ first grand slam of the year, the Australian Open.
Not only was the cold Michigan winter a change for Shanahan, but also the workload expected in a Division I college tennis program.
“Coming in my freshman year, I had no idea what I was getting myself into, coming into a mid-major DI program where so much is expected of you,” Shanahan said. “You can never expect the sheer volume of work that is ahead of you. I had a lot of overuse injuries from not being used to the bulk of the training.”
Leading a double life
Growing up in the small town of Szentes, Hungary, Virag had a tennis racket in his hand at an early age.
“My dad taught me how to play tennis when I was 3 1/2 years old,” Virag said. “I grew up playing tennis my whole life. We played on clay. I had eight outdoor courts, two indoor courts. I played there all year around. I just grew up there and went to school.”
By the time Virag got to high school, tennis and school work consumed his whole day. Virag would leave his house before 8 a.m. and often wouldn’t return home until after 8 p.m.
“I actually went to high school in a different city than my hometown, so I had to take a bus or take a car,” Virag said. “It was a half an hour ride. I went to school until two in the afternoon. Then my last couple years I went to another city again because there were more competitive kids over there. I traveled there, played two hours of tennis and did an hour of conditioning. Then I took a bus or a car back home, and it took an hour to get there. I got home at 8 o’clock.
“I did some school work, then started all over again the next day. It was tough, but I got used to it.”
Virag said he was just like most of the kids in his high school, at least until the school day ended.
“I was always a little different than the rest of the kids in my high school because I played a lot of sports,” Virag said. “They played some sports but I played two to three hours per day. I went to tournaments, which was different than most of them. So I had a double life. In school, I was like every other kid. Then there was practice and tournaments. That was my second life.”
While the women’s tennis season has ended, Virag and his teammates will continue their season at the Horizon League tournament April 29 through May 1 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
While NKU students prepare for final exams, Virag and company will continue to live out their second lives on the tennis court.