Transfer aims to make impression on tennis program at Rutgers

<p>Head coach Ben Bucca reminded Tihomirova of the match where she beat Rutgers' Vanessa Petrini when she was a freshman at Fairleigh Dickinson.</p>

Head coach Ben Bucca reminded Tihomirova of the match where she beat Rutgers' Vanessa Petrini when she was a freshman at Fairleigh Dickinson.

As the regular season winds down, the Rutgers tennis team approaches the final weeks of its first season in the Big Ten.

While they have yet to secure a conference win, the Scarlet Knights (6-12, 0-9) are optimistic about the annual battles with nationally ranked tennis powerhouses like Ohio State and Northwestern in the years to.

One big reason for the Knights’ optimism is 20-year-old Ksenija Tihomirova, who transferred into the program in January.

The Latvian tennis player is not only new to Piscataway, she’s also fairly new to the United States.

Her tennis career spans continents and her resume is extensive.

Describing her early days of tennis as “just something to do after school,” Tihomirova picked up her first racquet at age 10 and began playing at the local recreational center in her hometown of Riga, Latvia.

As the only tennis player in her family, she played almost every day after school for three years.

When she was fourteen, Tihormirova began playing international tournaments across Europe. In 2009, she even participated in the Youth Olympic Festival.

In 2010, she finished third in the doubles section of the European Junior Championships in Moscow, Russia.

There, she defeated Lee Levy of Israel in the Round of 64. 

Little did they know that a few years down the road they would be teammates as Knights.

Tihomirova attributes her ability and passion for the game to the influence of a coach who worked with her from ages 10-17.

“I never switched coaches (during that time), so (Levy) impacted my way of playing tennis," Tihomirova said. "She taught me how to play tennis in general. I started from nothing and she taught me how to play … so every single shot that I have is thanks to her."

Tihomirova graduated from Riga Secondary School at No. 40. Having committed to play tennis at Farleigh Dickinson, she came to the United States in August of 2013.

Although she would eventually transfer after three semesters, Tihomirova was dominant on the court during her time at FDU.

As a freshman, she earned both the No. 1 singles and doubles positions.

In September 2013, she was voted Northeast Conference Player and Rookie of the Week. Later on in the spring of that season, she won three more Northeast Conference Rookie of the Week awards and another Northeast Conference Player of the Week.

Finishing with a 17-11 record in singles play, Tihomirova was named the Northeast Conference Rookie of the Year and First Team All-NEC at No. 1 doubles with her partner, Shreya Pasricha. In individual play at the No. 1 spot, she was also named Second Team All-NEC.

In mid-November of 2014, Tihomirova decided that she wanted to transfer to Rutgers, citing its entrance into the Big Ten as one of many deciding factors.

The fact that one of the coaches that recruited Ksenija had left Farleigh Dickinson at the start of the fall 2014 season did not sit well with her at the time. 

Because there was an extended period when the program was without a coach, Ksenija became doubtful about remaining at the school and she began to speak with head coach Ben Bucca.

“Ksenija (Tihomirova) entertained some conversations with us and the conversations went really well, so she decided to transfer and I think it was really based on her wanting to be part of a team that would be very challenging and demanding and nurturing for her skills,” Bucca said.

Because she is a transfer student, Tihomirova is ineligible to play this spring. As a result, she has only been practicing with the team and is not permitted to travel with them. 

Regardless, Bucca and his team like what they have seen from her.

“I get the sense that she is a very strong competitor and she will be able to play to her skill level in competition and that’s easier said then done in tennis,” Bucca said, “I’m really looking forward to coaching her in actual competition because I have a feeling she does have that unique skill.”

At first glance, one could be easily deceived by Tihomirova’s physical stature.

Despite standing at just 5-foot-1, Bucca said he sees a valuable competitor in Tihomirova.

“She’s clearly a very talented player. Ksenija (Tihomirova) is very unique in the context that physically she’s very small … but her sense of rhythm and hand-eye coordination is exceptional," he said. "So she can hit the ball with someone normally would be much bigger and stronger than her, but through her timing she really plays a very strong game of tennis."

Junior Mariam Zein remains impressed with her performance at Farleigh Dickinson as a freshman.

“She played No. 1 (singles) … so she’s obviously a high level competitor," Zein said. "... She played the hardest people on every team."

Tihomirova has a brief but intriguing history with the Knights.

In February of 2014, she defeated Vanessa Petrini, a regional semifinalist and a Rutgers veteran at No. 1 singles when Farleigh Dickinson played the Knights.

“We played against them about a year ago when I played against Vanessa (Petrini),” Tihomirova said. “But at that time, (transferring to Rutgers) never crossed my mind at all. Actually, after I transferred, Coach (Bucca) reminded me (of that match).”

Besides high-level tennis, her past athletic experiences include track and field and soccer. She describes herself as always being athletic and focused on training.

While Tihomirova laughs and says she doesn’t have a strict regiment she needs to stick to at practice and instead does “whatever coach says,” her fitness routine does not end there.

“I’m always focused on training. Even before (I got to the United States), I would never miss practice without a reason,” she said. “I go to the gym and I love running. Whenever I have time, with the weather getting better now, I’ll go for a run or do agility work or footwork.”

Tihomirova’s efforts on and off the court have not gone unnoticed by her new teammates.

“She’s one of the most fit people I’ve ever seen, so that’s given her a great platform to start practicing,” Zein said.

Although Tihomirova has proven herself on the court, she is extremely humble and a bit hesitant when asked to describe her strengths.

“I would say I am always determined to win and I don’t really look at the opponent and think ‘Oh my gosh, she’s better than me’ … I don’t look at rankings,” she said. “It doesn’t really matter for me. I know my play and I’ll go and I’ll do my best.”

While Bucca is impressed with what he has seen from Tihomirova in practice, he maintains that the real test will come when the Knights begin a new season consistently playing ranked opponents week after week.

He also emphasized the importance of Tihomirova adjusting to Rutgers’ style of doubles play.

"There’s always all the difference in the world between practice and match play but based on what I saw, I’m expecting Ksenija to be a very strong singles player,” he said. “Typically, players, when they come to Rutgers, may not have the strategies and point patterns for doubles that we implement and spend a lot of time practicing. ... One of the reasons we’ve been as successful as we have in doubles is because of the amount of time we spend on doubles, so I’m expecting her to have a big improvement in her doubles play.”

While Tihomirova only started practicing with the team in January, she says she feels at home as a Knight.

“They’re really nice girls and it feels almost like family,” she said. “We’re really close and they really welcomed me and they support me and help me.”

That feeling has been mutual throughout the rest of the team. 

According to Zein, Tihomirova presents the perfect fit.

“We really like having her on the team, and she fits in perfectly,” Zein said. “She’s laid-back and funny like all of us. She’s relaxed and easy to get along with. We’re really excited to have her on the team and we’re anxious to have her play for next semester.”

Although it took a period of adjustment to feel comfortable at a large school like Rutgers, Tihomirova continues to be pleased with her choice to become a Knight and is eager to prove herself against Big Ten opponents.

Bucca is hopeful that she will have an immediate impact on the program, confirming her valuable addition to the Knights.

“All indicators are that she has assimilated extremely well into our program as well as Rutgers University,” he said. “In my discussions with her personally, she appears to be very happy … that she made the transfer. I know all the ladies on the team really get along well with her and speak very highly of her, so she demonstrates to me that she’s a happy person and that usually makes a good teammate.”

For updates on the Rutgers tennis team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.

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