Tennis: Bright future for daughter of the game

Mark Winters in Los Angeles meets a girl born to succeed on court
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The Independent Online
She cannot be that good ... that was the first impression. There must be something, however small, that I overlooked. Something that makes her like the typically boorish, self- absorbed teenager playing college tennis in the US.

She is simply too nice, too candid, too funny to be real. But Katia Roubanova is all of this and more. The 19-year-old daughter of the English- based former Wimbledon finalist Olga Morozova is a delightful Anglo-Russian mix - "my two best friends are English, and the way I do things is more English than Russian" - who is bringing a new flavour to the US college system while she studies at the University of California at Los Angeles.

"She has fun and is very outgoing. Everyone likes her," said Stella Sampras, the coach at UCLA and Pete's older sister. "She has a lot of spirit. She gets excited and will yell. It's very easy and natural for her."

She also plays quite well, ending her first season as one of five freshers to earn a spot in the year-end National Collegiate Athletic Association cham- pionships, despite a stress fracture in her foot. "The coaches respect her game," Sampras said. "It's really big and she is a very talented shotmaker. She is also the best doubles player on the team. You can tell she has been well coached."

As Morozova now heads up women's coaching in England, and Roubanova's father is also a coach, this is not altogether a surprise. "Generally, I practise with my dad, my mum handles the technical," she said. "I train with my dad because my mum's too hard."

She is not yet the finished article, however. The key to playing well throughout the college season is confidence. "It's tough to stay up because the season is so long and there are too many other pressures to deal with," Sampras said, pointing out that this was an area Roubanova needed to work on.

Calling her "very coachable", Sampras said: "She could move better. When she is moving well, she is playing well." On the technical side, Sampras said: "Sometimes she floats her backhand slice. She doesn't stick it. She can also work on her serve to make it bigger. This will set up her big forehand.

"She has the weapons to beat baseliners. She needs to keep working to become a little more consistent. The great thing is I have her three more years and she is still developing. She is not afraid of change."

That showed with the way she fitted into the college team. "They think I'm crazy," Roubanova said. "I have a lot of energy and I get excited. I have a loud voice and I like to cheer." Though sidelined by the stress fracture in the match against local rivals University of Southern California, Roubanova was still a force.

"I made up cheers like 'put them to ruins, Bruins [UCLA's nickname]'. I was cheering against the whole USC volleyball team. Finally, they started using my cheer. I told them to get their own."

Of course, having moved from Russia to England at the age of 12, Roubanova knew what it was like to adapt culturally. "That was extremely hard," she says of her first transition. "I didn't really speak English. I could only say a few things that you learn in school and I was really close to my grandmother. She brought me up because my mother was playing."

But then what looked to be a setback turned into a blessing. At the age of 15, serious cartilage surgery on her right knee forced her to take a year away from the game, but gave her the chance to assess her aspirations. "It put things into perspective," she admitted. "I asked, 'What am I going to do?' In England, you do not have a good balance. You either do tennis or do school. I did not want to give up tennis for school."

The school-tennis combination in the US provided the solution, but again Roubanova had to make a transition. "The first quarter I was overwhelmed," she said of the effort to juggle academics and athletics. "I spent so much time studying I felt the standard I was playing was pretty low."

Her first confrontation with final exams was taxing. "I had an anthropology class and there was so much to know," she recalled. "I thought, 'Oh God, I'm going to fail.' I was so worried I called my mum and I could hardly speak. She told me to go watch TV. The whole term I had only watched TV for two hours but I did it and it helped."

As her initial college experience comes to a close, she is now anxious to return to England. "I am kind of getting homesick," she said.