Russian tennis player makes C-U home

By Derek Barichello

Illini freshman Anastasia Sokolova is 4,579 miles away from her home in St. Petersburg, Russia, and has not seen her family since October 2000.

For the past four years, she has lived with a host family in Palm Harbor, Fla., before coming to Champaign this summer.

That is the sacrifice Sokolova has made in order to fulfill her dreams of becoming a professional tennis player someday.

Sokolova hopes to follow in the footsteps of her favorite athlete, Russian-born tennis star Maria Sharapova.

Sharapova, who is ranked No. 3 in the world, made the same sacrifice as Sokolova, but at an earlier age. Sharapova had to leave her family at age 9 to attend Nick Bollettieri’s Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Fla., to fulfill her dream.

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Other Russian-born professional tennis players have done the same. Anna Kournikova and seventh-ranked Svetlana Kuznetsova left Russia to pursue tennis careers, as well.

Sokolova said she visited the United States for the first time at age 11 and knew then that she wanted to attend school and play tennis in the United States.

Although that meant leaving home, Sokolova was not going to give up a chance at her dream.

“It’s my home in Russia, and I love being there,” Sokolova said. “This country is just better, there are so many more opportunities and the quality of life is just better.”

Sokolova moved in with her host family in Palm Harbor and said the biggest transition was the culture shock.

“The cultures are totally different,” Sokolova said. “It was difficult getting used to everything at first when I moved in with my host family, because when I moved in, I had only met them once, but I got used to it all fast.”

She played tennis at East Lake High School in Florida where Illinois head coach Sujay Lama’s brother saw her play in a tournament.

“He called me up and said ‘you have to see this girl play,'” Lama said. “So I took a trip down to Florida to watch her play and ended up recruiting her.”

Lama was impressed by her athleticism and natural acceleration, but most of all he noticed her work ethic.

“When we recruited her, we felt she had a tremendous work ethic,” Lama said. “Although she has not shown it at all times this season, that will be exposed more as she matures as a tennis player.”

Lama is hoping she will bring character to the Illini in her four years.

“It will come down to her hunger and desire,” Lama said. “We have a lot of faith in her that she will mature into a great player.”

The toughest sacrifice Sokolova still has to face is not being able to see her mother.

“I miss her the most,” Sokolova said. “We stay in touch by talking on the phone and through e-mails.”

Sokolova said she does not know when she will see her family again, but that she wants to finish college first.