PULLMAN – After careful consideration, Liudmila Vasilieva – Luda for short – had finally made her decision.
Instead of Kansas State, she would play her college tennis at Washington State University, which, of course, is located in the United States’ bustling capital city, Washington, D.C.
“My classmates were asking me, ‘So where are you going?’ ” said Vasilieva, a native of Yekaterinburg, Russia. “I said, ‘Yeah, I’m going to be in Washington, D.C. I’m cool. It’s going to be so cool.’ ”
From a tennis perspective, she was certainly right about that last part.
No, Vasilieva quickly learned, WSU is not located near the White House. Pullman is a bit smaller than where she thought she was headed.
But here she is, the Cougars’ top-ranked player at No. 50 in the country, leading her team to its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2008 this weekend in Gainesville, Fla.
WSU faces Florida State in its first-round match on Friday. Vasilieva was also selected to participate in the NCAA singles championship later this month, but said qualifying as a team for the first time in her career is the bigger deal.
“That’s definitely what I was always looking forward to and was my main goal,” said Vasilieva, a junior. “The team goes first. It means the work we’ve done has reflected.”
She had to do some hard work of her own just to get here.
The easier path would have been to stay committed to Kansas State. Vasilieva told KSU coaches that’s where she wanted to play, due in part to that school’s more lenient entrance requirements for international students.
To play at Kansas State, she’d need only to pass the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or an equivalent, which she already had. But WSU also requires international students to achieve a passing score on the SAT, which made Vasilieva nervous.
When the Cougars began recruiting her, she barely spoke any English, aside from the cursory “Hi, how are you?” she’d been taught in high school. Fortunately for both parties, WSU assistant coach Ekaterina Burduli could speak to Vasilieva in Russian on the phone.
“I don’t know if I would have even come here if there was no Eka,” Vasilieva said.
Even though it would be difficult to make it happen, she decided WSU was where she needed to be. It was a better school, academically – Vasilieva is a finance major – and in a more competitive conference. Plus, she’d developed a bond with Burduli and head coach Lisa Hart, who discovered her through an agency in Russia and immediately liked what she saw.
So Vasilieva studied, studied and studied some more. When she told an employee at the language school she attended that she needed to pass both tests in a year, she was advised against it.
That’s impossible, they said.
“It’s really hard,” Vasilieva was told. “Not everybody can do that. But I said, ‘I’m going to work hard. I’ll be good.’ ”
The following months were accompanied by “mountains” of note cards labeled with English words as she studied every day with a personal instructor. And because the tests weren’t offered in her home town, Vasilieva had to take a two-hour flight to Moscow (Russia, not Idaho) just to take them.
The formality of it all made her a little nervous. But she passed, and has been a fixture at WSU’s No. 1 spot ever since. And she speaks nearly flawless English.
She’s mentally tougher now, Vasilieva says, able to ignore the ranking of her opponent and focus instead on how she can exploit weaknesses.
Her best win this year came against Zoe Scandalis of USC, who was ranked No. 13 in the country at the time. Vasilieva, who is 31-7 this season, lost the first set and fell behind 4-2 in the second before coming back to win 6-4. She took the final set 6-0.
“I’ve always thought people are playing, not rankings,” Vasilieva said. “You can always beat a person higher than you on the right day. You just need to be mentally ready for that. I never think about rankings when I’m playing someone. There’s a person you need to beat, not a ranking.”
It’s that attitude that has Hart wondering if there’s more in store. If Vasilieva can finish in the top 16 at the singles championships, it’s possible.
“I’d like to see her become an All-American,” Hart said. “I’d like to see her get there this year or next year. And she’d be the first one in school history, so that’d be neat.”