Seniors anticipate last chance at Atkins

By Harini Ganesh

This weekend, the women’s tennis team hosts two Big Ten matches – the final home matches of the regular season. But it is also significant for seniors Brianna Knue and Pavlina Akritas: These are the last regular season home meets of their college tennis careers.

“It’s still not setting in,” Knue said. “I honestly can’t believe it’s been four years. It’s been a pleasure playing here at Atkins in front of our home fans year after year.”

Knue came to play for Illinois from Western Springs, Ill., and did not have high expectations in the beginning. A dream of hers to play college tennis, she exceeded her initial goals and improved year after year.

“I’m proud of the effort I have given here,” she said. “It’s been a blessing for me and it’s been awesome being able to live that dream for four years.”

Akritas arrived at the University from an entirely different continent. Hailing from Cyprus, she wanted to study engineering and came to Illinois because of the program’s excellent reputation. She had never played in a team atmosphere before and was happy to meet the girls on the team upon coming to Champaign.

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“I didn’t know many people when I came to the U.S.,” she said. “It was easier to adjust having met the people on the team. They helped me out and it wasn’t hard for me to make friends.”

Knue and Akritas have had different college careers. While Knue has played in every match this season, Akritas underwent surgery and the subsequent recuperation. But both women, Illinois head coach Sujay Lama said, have a loyalty for the team and the tennis program.

“Brianna is one of the most loyal people I know,” he said. “She’ll do anything and everything to be at her best.”

He added that Akritas recently had surgery – for a ligament tear – while Illinois was playing a road match at Purdue the same day.

“We had just lost to Purdue and out of the door when I got a call,” he said. “It was Pavlina. She had just come out of unconsciousness and her first words were, ‘How did we do?’ I was very touched.”

Assistant coach JoAnne Russell said she will miss the two players and wishes that all the players she coached had the same desire as Akritas and Knue. She said Akritas is a hard worker and was always fired up, never missed practice or a lesson and that Knue is “absolutely the best team player.”

“She’s worked really hard,” she said. “I’ve coached her and it’s so fun when someone just really trusts you.”

As freshmen, both players reveled on an unranked Illinois’ defeat of No.1 Duke, which was coming off a 12-0 winning streak, 4-3. The feeling of beating the top-ranked team gave Akritas strength and the desire to work harder. She saw how the team worked and as she recovered from a ligament surgery, she put more heart into rehab in order to do well for the team. She added that having the support of a team makes it nice when playing matches.

“When you play for the team, you have them cheering for you,” she said, comparing her years playing for herself. “Now you have to aim higher than winning for yourself.”

Knue has used each year to improve her game and has learned that the most important thing she has learned playing at Illinois is to give 100 percent effort everyday.

“You’re going to have no regrets,” she said. “When you look back on it, you’ll know you gave all you had.”

Playing college tennis for a team has been a positive experience for Akritas. She said traveling with the team, despite the tough matches, was always fun, especially knowing the team cares about one another.

Both are going in different directions upon graduation. Akritas is pursuing higher studies in London to work on her Master’s degree. Knue has hopes of going to medical school and if that does not turn out, she might work in human resources management or, if the opportunity comes, coach college tennis.

“It’s been a great ride,” Knue said. “I’m sad it’s coming to an end but that’s the way life is. You’ve got to move on.”

Lama said he will miss both the players.

“It’s been a joy being around these two seniors and watch them grow,” he said.