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Kawai finds home at UI

Illinois%27+Asuka+Kawai+celebrates+during+the+match+against+Rutgers+at+Atkins+Tennis+Center+on+Friday%2C+March+29%2C+2019.+The+Illini+won+6-1.
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Kawai finds home at UI

Illinois' Asuka Kawai celebrates during the match against Rutgers at Atkins Tennis Center on Friday, March 29, 2019. The Illini won 6-1.

Illinois' Asuka Kawai celebrates during the match against Rutgers at Atkins Tennis Center on Friday, March 29, 2019. The Illini won 6-1.

Austin Yattoni

Illinois' Asuka Kawai celebrates during the match against Rutgers at Atkins Tennis Center on Friday, March 29, 2019. The Illini won 6-1.

Austin Yattoni

Austin Yattoni

Illinois' Asuka Kawai celebrates during the match against Rutgers at Atkins Tennis Center on Friday, March 29, 2019. The Illini won 6-1.

By Gabby Vazquez, Staff Writer

Only a handful of Illinois athletes call other countries home, and even fewer have lived in more than one.

For sophomore Asuka Kawai, it’s no different. Kawai has had to move from place to place and overcome challenge after challenge to get her to where she is at now.

Kawai started playing tennis after watching her parents play when she was a child. The first time she picked up a racket was at the age of 5. Kawai spent the first few years of her life in England, where she learned to speak English, and spent the rest of her life in Nagoya, Japan, until moving to the U.S. where she attended Palatine High School.

Kawai was living on her dad’s visa at the time and had no choice but to graduate from Palatine in three years. Kawai said she had an incredible high school adviser who dedicated more than enough time to ensure her success. Her counselor made sure she had the necessary credits to attend a four-year university, she said.

As an international student, Kawai had no idea what it meant to play tennis at a collegiate level, let alone at a Division I school. She started playing and her coach took an interest in her instantly, knowing she had what it takes to play tennis at one of the highest levels. Once Kawai understood the differences between Division I, II and III schools, she knew she had to play for a DI school.

“Coming in, I didn’t know anything about scholarships, full-rides or what playing college tennis even was,” Kawai said. “My coach in high school really helped me with understanding what all this meant, and it really helped me narrow down my decision.”

There were many factors that came into play when deciding on what university she would attend after graduating from Palatine. Going to a school with an impeccable academic atmosphere was a top priority for her, she said, but she really wanted to go somewhere she could play tennis in conjunction with a world-class education.

Illinois fit that bill, and head coach Evan Clark noticed Kawai after learning about her situation as an international student.

“There have been a lot of ups and downs throughout my life, especially in tennis, and they almost led me to quit,” Kawai said. “After visiting Illinois and talking to coach (Clark), I knew that Illinois was the perfect fit for me to really grow academically and in tennis.”

After any match, Kawai analyzes every detail of the match to figure out what she did wrong. She said she also looks at what her opponent did well and will use some of those moves in her game.

For Kawai, a huge support system has always been important to her. Her mom and sister live back home in Japan and her dad lives in Palatine but will be moving back to Japan in a few months. Kawai said it will be hard not having her family as close, but she knows she has their full support in whatever she chooses to do in life.

Kawai is studying psychology with a focus on human resources and a minor in business and public relations. She’s only a sophomore and has a lot of time before she has to decide what she’ll be doing after graduation; however, becoming a professional tennis player has crossed her mind once or twice.

“I really want to qualify for the NCAA tennis championship before I graduate,” Kawai said. “Whether that be as a team or individually is up to chance, but it’s something I’m hoping to scratch off my list of things I want to do before leaving Illinois.”

As the Illini get closer to wrapping up their season, Kawai reminisces on the spring and looks forward to her future at Illinois and her team. The Illini will be hosting Penn State and Ohio State this weekend, and Kawai is confident she and the team are ready to compete to their full potential.

“Sometimes, I have to remember that it’s not just me out there,” Kawai said. “Even though I often play individually, tennis is a team sport, and I couldn’t be happier to be a part of such an amazing and supportive organization.”

 

@G_Vazquez15

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