At CSUN, Tennis is a Universal Language

By Geoff Herberg, CSUN Media Relations

NORTHRIDGE, Calif. --- Tennis is one of the quieter sports by its nature, making the grunts, wails and cries of victory and agony amplified against the stillness of fierce competition. The thing at Matador Tennis Complex is you are never quite certain as to what language you will hear next.

For head coach Gary Victor, now in his 15th season at the helm of the Matadors, the language barriers presented by the vast array of hometowns of his student-athletes ends when they step on the court. 

"I think the great thing about tennis is that it's played throughout the world and that universal appeal helps us bridge any language gaps that might exist," Victor said.

In his tenure at Northridge, Victor has had student-athletes arrive in the San Fernando Valley from all over the world, including Europe, Africa, Asia and South America. And while the realities of being a college student-athlete amidst the chaos and confusion of a foreign land can be daunting, the sport of tennis is what brings them together.

A look at the 2011-12 roster is such an indication. On a squad with 11 members, five hail originally from outside the United States. The locales include Hong Kong, Germany, Belarus and Uzbekistan.

And yet despite differences that would seem to present obstacles most other coaches would never face, the Matadors are proud of their multi-cultural roster and fascinated that it is tennis that brings them together.

Eastern Bloc

A senior from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Nigora Sirojiddinova considers herself a groundbreaker in making the trip from her home country to Northridge to play tennis and attend college. According to her best guess, she was just the third young woman to leave for college in America from Uzbekistan.

"I think my success in coming to Northridge for school has really opened the door for many," Sirojiddinova said. "I now have friends playing in Oklahoma, Tennessee and New York. People are starting to realize that it is better to go and get an education than it is to stay home and work as a coach."

When she arrived at CSUN, Sirojiddinova was surprised to learn that someone she had competed against in her youth had just wrapped up a very successful career for the Matadors, Kanykey Koichumanova.

"While some girls use expensive programs to help find college, I just wrote to schools and coaches to gauge their interest," Sirojiddinova added. "I didn't find out that Kanykey, who is originally from Kyrgyzstan, competed for Northridge until I got here. But when I found out, it reassured me a little in my choice."

One of her teammates, Ryma Korab, is another foreign student-athlete who is originally from Belarus.

Korab has been training nearly her entire life in tennis. Her father always fancied her for the sport and enrolled her in ballet and gymnastics at a young age with the hopes that it would improve her tennis skills.

When it came time for college, Korab realized a dream by coming to Northridge.

"I had always wanted to study abroad and have the ability to mix my studies with playing tennis," Korab said. "Although I have since changed my major to biochemistry, CSUN has a great business school that really attracted my attention. That, and its location in Southern California." 

Last season, Korab finished with a 5-2 singles record and recorded impressive victories over Texas State and Georgetown. Having the opportunity to meet and interact with players from all over the world is something Korab relishes.

"It is very interesting to learn about different cultures and nationalities," Korab said. "Our team is a great mix of young women. We never really grow tired of each other and always have fun." 

Far East

Lorraine Cheung, one of the Matadors' fiercest competitors, hails from Hong Kong. Located on the Indian Ocean and with a population of over seven million, tennis in Hong Kong is a popular sport, according to Cheung.

After winning several junior tournaments at home and abroad, Cheung made a trip to the United States in 2008 that first introduced her to the idea of playing tennis at Northridge. Her coach from Hong Kong knew Coach Victor and convinced him to consider making Cheung a Matador.

Four years later, Cheung enters her second season at Northridge excited for the upcoming spring season. In her rookie season at CSUN, she put together a 14-6 record in singles play and posted notable victories over Nevada, USC, Hawai'i, San Diego State, Georgetown, Pacific and Cal Poly.

Because of the success and the home she has made at Northridge with her teammates, Cheung has no reservations about going to school thousands of miles from home.

"Playing tennis with student-athletes from all over the world is certainly fun and interesting," Cheung said. "Because of my travels in junior tournaments, I don't think there's been much culture shock. My teammates help and I have really learned a lot from them, including a little Russian."

One of Cheung's teammates also hails from Hong Kong, senior Jennifer Sher.

For her, Sher's experience in college tennis in the United States is all about the educational opportunities. Although she is entertaining the idea of teaming with her sister Pui Wing Sher, a sophomore at Seton Hall, and trying their luck at the professional ranks, Sher plans on attending graduate school.

"I've found that it is easier to balance the educational and athletic demands in America than in Hong Kong," Sher explained.  "In Hong Kong, the educational demands are so great that they sometimes take away from your training. But I had always wanted to come to the United States and this is a great learning experience that has helped me to become more independent."

She also enjoys having Cheung around because of the familiarity she brings.

"We tend to be on the same page and think the same way a lot of the times on certain things," Sher added. "It is comforting to have her around because she is there to support me just as I support her."

Sher enters her senior season poised to be one of the top players in the Big West Conference. She earned All-Big West First Team honors for her work in both doubles and singles in 2011. 

Europe

Rounding out the Matadors' international crew of student-athletes is a German import, junior Maria Pistalu. A 2011 All-Big West Honorable Mention in doubles, Pistalu has had two successful seasons as a Matador and has been playing tennis nearly all her life.

Born and raised to Romanian parents in Munich, Pistalu says tennis is nearly as popular as soccer in Germany. As she split her time between the two sports, she wasn't sure at first if tennis was for her.

Then, while playing soccer, she was spotted by a famed doubles player, who convinced her to stick to tennis full time. By the age of 15, she was only playing tennis and not looking back. It was at that point that she began investigating American colleges and quickly knew where she wanted to end up.

"It was my dream to come to Los Angeles and get a degree," Pistalu said. "The idea of playing college tennis is very alluring to players in Germany and I have some family in Northridge, so I contacted the coaches."

When it comes to communicating with her teammates from around the world, Pistalu is unfazed due in part to her upbringing. At her home in Munich, her parents speak to her in Macedonian and she replies in Romanian. And when she converses with her brother Stefan, it is in their native German.

"It is an amazing experience to get to compete with and learn from student-athletes from all over the world," Pistalu said. "It is funny how different we all are and yet how much we complete each other."

One area that the team has excelled at in Victor's tenure is in the classroom. Whether they are from America or another destination around the globe, the Cal State Northridge women's tennis program has produced a plethora of highly successful student-athletes.

"I think our academic success is something I am most proud of," Victor said. "Wins and losses come and go, but nearly all the young women who have come to CSUN to play tennis have also walked away with a degree. From here, some have moved on to law, medical and graduate schools throughout the nation and all stay in touch as they go forward with their lives."

Victor has had two Matadors finish their careers with perfect 4.0 GPAs and earn Big West Scholar-Athlete of the Year honors: Shaheen Bhanji and Sandra Kukla. On the current team, Korab was recognized by the Big West Conference in the spring of 2011 for her academic achievements and she and Pistalu were each awarded scholarships from the Jim & Mary Gorman Athletic Scholarship Endowment.

As they prepare for the spring 2012 when their official season begins, the Matadors are bursting with laughter and emotion, sounds that are the same in any language. The team has a challenging schedule ahead of them in addition to the trials and tribulations of Big West play and they are eager to prove their mettle against top competition. Just don't expect them do it quietly.