From Russia with love
Northwestern's European imports have helped the Wildcats to the top of the Big Ten
Northwestern women's tennis coach Claire Pollard would like one day to travel to Russia, but she's never been there before.
Her Russian vocabulary begins and ends with the word for no.
"I know that because I hear that all the time," Pollard said with a laugh.
From her English accent to her limited experience with all things Russian, Pollard doesn't seem like the ideal candidate to recruit two of the top international tennis players from Moscow and persuade them to make Northwestern their new home. But that is what she did with junior Maria Mosolova and sophomore Elena Chernyakova.
Pollard doesn't boast to be some masterful recruiter, especially in the cases of Mosolova and Chernyakova. Surely, Pollard's past successes -- her teams had won nine consecutive Big Ten championships before the two arrived -- and Northwestern's prestigious academics played a part in attracting them, but Pollard also acknowledged in both instances there were variables and a bit of luck that ultimately brought two unlikely Russian recruits to her program.
"You got to be ready for anything," said Pollard, who recently won her 12th consecutive Big Ten title and is now preparing for the NCAA tournament. "Everything is constantly changing in recruiting."
Mosolova was the first to fall in Pollard's lap. After opting not to turn pro after graduating from high school, Mosolova decided she would use her tennis ability to earn a degree at one of the elite academic institutions in America. She began her search by sending out e-mails to the tennis coaches at a handful of schools, including Duke and Northwestern.
The first e-mail that Mosolova sent to Northwestern went unanswered; it was before the open recruiting period and Pollard couldn't reply as per NCAA regulations. When the time came and Pollard received a second e-mail, she quickly sent back a note and expressed her interest.
From a tennis standpoint, Pollard knew Mosolova could flourish in the Big Ten -- she was the 41st-ranked junior player by the International Tennis Federation (ITF). The question was whether Mosolova academically could get into Northwestern.
"It's pretty rare that I'm going to get a Russian that speaks good English, has the academics and has been in school long enough to be prepared for Northwestern," Pollard said. "The academic requirements are so tough at Northwestern that it can be so difficult for nonspeaking English student-athletes."
That wasn't a problem with Mosolova. Her academics were superb, and she was fluent in English, which she had studied since she was a child. Pleased to discover that, Pollard traveled to Hungary to see Mosolova play, offered her a scholarship and Mosolova later committed.
Mosolova's recruitment happened over time. So Pollard was able to prepare her for the differences in culture and tennis at Northwestern from her homeland. The process was much quicker with Chernyakova.
Late in 2008, a scholarship opened up for Northwestern. Pollard was conflicted whether to search for another player for the following season or hold onto the scholarship. Just to cover all her bases, she asked Mosolova if she knew of anyone who might fit Northwestern's standards.
Mosolova instantly thought of Chernyakova, a childhood tennis friend of hers who was intelligent and also spoke fluent English, and gave her a call.
"I was playing in pro tournaments [while maintaining amateur status]," said Chernyakova, who was ranked 16th by the ITF. "I wasn't thinking about colleges. Maria called me, and I got really interested in the whole idea, and I ended up coming. I was just interested in the whole experience of having both an education while playing."
Mosolova's transition to Northwestern was smooth. Pollard hasn't seen many domestic players adjust as quickly to college life and tennis as did Mosolova.
Chernyakova didn't have it as easy.
"It was a much harder transition for her than Maria," Pollard said. "With Maria, I spent a whole year e-mailing her and being up front with her. I didn't have that opportunity with Elena. She had no idea. She was so used to her own schedule. She was surprised to be one someone else's."
The one positive was Mosolova had already been at Northwestern for a year when Chernyakova arrived.
"The hardest thing was probably not having any Russian people around me," Chernyakova said. "Whenever I had questions, Maria would guide me through them. It was nice to have somebody from your hometown there."
Both did have to go through a similar learning curve with playing for a team. Both had been accustomed to tennis as an individual sport.
"The whole team concept was different for me," Mosolova said. "I was used to playing with a coach. Now I had other players on my team."
Pollard has seen them adapt.
"It's important to understand that the team comes first," Pollard said. "What it means to be playing for Northwestern is you're playing for something bigger than yourself. Both are embracing that. That's what we hope as Wildcats."
On the court, both have shined. Mosolova has lost one Big Ten singles match in three seasons and is currently ranked 13th in the country by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association. Chernyakova has excelled as a doubles player and has gone 60-21 in doubles during the past two seasons.
Lately, Mosolova and Chernyakova, who share the same birthday (Oct. 19), have even been united as doubles partners. Pollard has been searching for a match and decided to experiment with them.
The two have been a perfect fit. Their games have meshed, and they've used their Russian language to their advantage. With their win over Michigan in the Big Ten tournament championship, they improved to 6-1 as doubles partners.
"They have good chemistry," Pollard said. "It sounds silly, but being able to talk in their native tongue helps them. They complement each other. Elena is a good risk taker. Maria is a lot more conservative. She sets Elena up, and Elena finishes.
"I think they both have a similar personality in where they can both be irritable, but they can also make each other smile and laugh. In doubles, that can be a deciding factor."
Mosolova has enjoyed her Northwestern experience from start to finish, but having Chernyakova there has added to it.
"She's very outgoing," Mosolova said. "She's very social. She's just a happy person. She tries very hard in the every match. She's a great doubles partner. We always have fun.
"It's always nice to have someone from your same country, same city. Having Elena here has definitely helped me. Sometimes she makes Russian food. I have a bond with all my teammates, but it's different with her."
Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.