Cuadra shines at tennis, adjusts to American life

Alejandra Meza Cuadra poses at the Atkins Tennis Center on Tuesday, October 16, 2007. Cuadra has an overall singles record of 36-50 with a Big Ten record of 8-21. Erica Magda

Alejandra Meza Cuadra poses at the Atkins Tennis Center on Tuesday, October 16, 2007. Cuadra has an overall singles record of 36-50 with a Big Ten record of 8-21. Erica Magda

By Stuart Lieberman

She can almost taste the Peruvian spices in the onions and tomatoes in a lomo saltado. Just the image of the native dish, accompanied with fried potatoes and rice, makes Alejandra Meza Cuadra’s mouth water.

The succulent cuisine is quickly washed out of her memory by a landmark icon – the Eiffel Tower. She reminisces over her study abroad experience last summer in Paris.

Her dark curls invade her face as she shifts back to the present. She is immersed in the American slang of her teammates at the Atkins Tennis Center, where she is known as “Alé.”

After growing up in Lima, Peru, where she attended a French immersion school, Cuadra now makes her home in Champaign. But her mind still spins through a tripod of cultures.

Cuadra’s diversity has made her what she is today.

She said her experiences have helped her “grow up as a person, be a more outgoing person and meet international people.”

A senior on the court but a junior in school, Cuadra has led a life very different from any other woman on the team.

She said she has been able to balance everything by challenging herself.

But head coach Michelle Dasso thinks maybe it’s a bit too much.

“She puts too much pressure on herself,” Dasso said.

Cuadra said she has gotten through all of the transitions in her life by following her own words of advice:

“Be grateful for every person that supports you and reward them by your results,” she said. Cuadra receives the strongest support from her mother Marissa, a sociologist.

Cuadra is not close with her father, Antonio, but said her mother has always had big dreams for her.

“She was the one person that was the most supportive,” Cuadra said. “She spent a lot of time with me, even to bring me food on the court.”

Coming to America

Growing up, Cuadra spoke Spanish at home, but her parents chose to send her to a school where everything was taught in French.

“They thought I could learn English eventually in my future, that I would learn it anyways,” she said.

As a result of her parents’ decision, Cuadra is now fluent in French, Spanish and English. She supports her parents’ decision today, believing they helped her acquire a great life skill.

As far as her tennis career in Peru went, Cuadra was ranked No. 1 in both the 16- and 18-under divisions and represented her country as the No. 1 player in South American tournaments while playing for the national team.

When not studying or playing tennis, Cuadra spent a lot of time with her brother, Antonio. Now a professional soccer player for Peru, Antonio used to practice with his sister. Cuadra played soccer for her high school team and had the opportunity to play on the Peruvian national team.

In time, she had to choose: tennis or soccer.

“Soccer for girls in Peru is not that big,” Cuadra said. “I like tennis more because you need to have more confidence in yourself. It’s about you.”

Cuadra added that she does not regret her decision and still plays soccer for fun with friends.

Cuadra contacted the University of Illinois while she was enrolled in Franco Peruano High School and sent videotapes of her play on the court to tennis team officials. She chose to come to Champaign after being offered a scholarship. At only 17 years old, Cuadra made the journey to Champaign all by herself.

Cuadra took her first semester at the University to familiarize herself with the culture and the school, and then joined the tennis team second semester.

Upon arrival, though, Cuadra endured a culture shock.

“Where she was from, everything was much slower paced,” teammate Momei Qu said.

She found it difficult to be herself because she had trouble communicating.

“I was very homesick first semester,” Cuadra said. “After asking for help, I ended up liking it and improved my English.”

But Cuadra’s biggest challenge upon entering college was the same as most other students.

“Before I was very spoiled,” she said. “My mom used to do everything for me, and now I feel that I have to do everything myself.”

Cuadra said overcoming this challenge has helped her become a more outgoing person and meet new people.

“I am more used to being in the States now,” she said. “I grew up a lot.”

On the court

Cuadra faced another obstacle before she even hit the court. She was deemed ineligible to participate in the team’s first spring tournament in Hawaii because of issues with her NCAA paperwork.

Once on the court, Cuadra ran into yet another hurdle: she had to adjust to playing on hard court. In Peru, she was accustomed to clay. Cuadra endured a lot her freshman year and made it through the spring season of 2005 with a 3-11 record in singles and a 2-2 record in doubles.

The next season she had a complete turnaround on the court, posting a 20-18 record in singles while going 12-26 in doubles. She was voted Most Improved Player by her teammates.

Now, as a fourth-year player, Cuadra asserts she is much more comfortable.

Dasso said her serve and backhand have really shot up, she can outlast anyone on the court, and she puts a lot of trust in her coaches. Her personality hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“She’s probably the funniest person I’ve ever met in my life,” Minor added. “Dinner wouldn’t be the same without her on trips.”

And yet, Dasso said Cuadra appeared to keep to herself when she first met her in 2006.

“She’s a very intriguing person. The more you get to know her the more funny you realize she is,” Dasso said.

Dasso tries to pull her out of her shell in practice.

“When I try to get her fired up in practice I’ll yell ‘Vamos Alé!'” Dasso said.

Looking ahead

Despite her gradual assimilation into American culture, Cuadra said her friends and family in Peru will always be in the back of her mind.

“I go back every summer and Christmas break,” she said.

She may not be paying them a visit next summer.

Cuadra is applying for business internships for next summer at major companies, including a prestigious one at Ernst and Young. Her ability to speak three languages and solid academic performance in the classroom may give Cuadra an edge over other candidates.

“Tennis is one of her priorities, but she does well off the court, too,” Qu said. “She has taught me that you can find success in all different areas of life.”

Cuadra finished among the top 10 students of her high school class and has continued her academic successes at the University, working toward gaining a pair of degrees in economics and accountancy.

Dasso said she knows Cuadra will be successful because she is good at everything she attempts to do – including salsa dancing.

“She’s a great salsa dancer,” Dasso said. “I see her doing something in international business, but after she graduates I want to go see her salsa dance.”

Qu believes Cuadra could end up anywhere because she has the determination to get everything she wants.

“She told me she really likes Florida, so maybe I’ll see her on the beach one day,” Qu said.