By Steve Pratt
Arriving for nearly two months for the first time in Southern California to start her summer following the biggest win of her tennis career has been nothing short of bittersweet for Sabina Zeynalova.
Just days after leading the University of Texas to the NCAA Team Championship, the 18-year-old freshman Zeynalova arrived in San Diego to start play as a qualifier in the first-of-six SoCal Pro Circuit tournaments at Rancho Santa Fe Tennis Club.
Zeynalova said when she set out for Austin, Texas, from her native land of Kyiv, Ukraine, back in September the idea was to return home and reunite with family and friends and to play select ITF pro tournaments near her home in Eastern Europe following her first year of college.
“To be honest, I would have gone back to Ukraine if I could – that was the plan,” said Zeynalova, who said the first military strikes and invasion by Russia on her homeland that coincided with the start of her first season on February 24 changed everything. “But I cannot go back there because of the war. I talked with my coach, and he said I should just stay in America and come to San Diego and play these ITFs. So that’s what I did.”
Zeynalova’s coach just happens to know a few things about SoCal as Texas’ women’s head coach Howard Joffe played at Pepperdine in the early 1990s and later served as an assistant coach at USC. Playing No. 3 for the Longhorns, Zeynalova went 23-1 on the season in singles and was a key reason why Texas was able to defend its NCAA title and go back-to-back.
“Coming off playing so many matches at NCAAs I think really helped me,” said Zeynalova, who played the French Open, Wimbledon and US Open in the juniors.
Zeynalova said it was the South African native Joffe and her Texas teammates who provided her with the emotional and mental support she needed so badly during a time of war in her home country when she was so far from family and friends. “Of course, I talked to them every day,” she said. “My father and mother and grandparents managed to escape and get out of the country because they have dual citizenship in Azerbaijan. They actually just came back a week ago because of work. But I had other relatives that had to stay. That was probably the toughest just not knowing day by day what was happening.”
She added: “I’m so thankful for my coach, who was so supportive of me. He tried to protect me from the bad news, but it was obviously on my mind the entire time. And playing just helped me get through it. I found a relief in tennis.”
Zeynalova said she was close to turning professional after her successful junior career, but that after speaking with her parents she realized a college degree – with a major in Phycology – from an American university would serve her well once her playing day were over.
“It is a very tough decision, especially for Europeans,” she said. “The thinking over there is that only failures (in ITF junior tennis) go to college. But obviously I’m not going to play tennis for my whole life.”
She said working on her power game and being more aggressive will be her focus this summer. “I feel like in college it’s so different from the pros because you just have to play consistent,” Zeynalova said. “At the pro level that’s not enough. There is room for improvement in my game. The main thing is having more power and going for my shots.”
Zeynalova will, of course, miss home and longs to see her parents once again as things stabilize in Ukraine. But for now the plan is to play five more SoCal Pro Circuit events and continue her rise up the WTA rankings. “It’s a structured plan and having all these events together will cut down on my travel expenses,” she said. “Honestly, it’s so beautiful here. If I ever do decide to come back and live in America, this is where I would want to be.”