Vladea shrugs off injuries to become top tennis player

Jabari Ritchie

Early in the second set of her No. 1 singles match against Purdue’s Melissa Iqbal three weeks ago, Valerie Vladea fell to the court with an injured ankle.

But minutes later, the top player on Minnesota’s women’s tennis team was back on her feet, en route to a straight-sets victory. Vladea had been through too much worse this season to be hindered by an ankle sprain.

When she injured her shoulder at the ITA regionals in November, the team feared its All-Big Ten player could be out for the entire season.

“She didn’t hit a ball for two months,” said coach Tyler Thomson, who was coaching his first tournament with the Gophers when Vladea was injured. “She dedicated herself in the training room to her rehabilitation. Two hours, every single day, no complaints Ö That’s what got her where she is now.”

After returning in February, Vladea has been the most consistent player in Minnesota’s lineup. After starting the season unranked, she has climbed to No. 90 in the national singles rankings.

Vladea has also put together an impressive 12-4 doubles record with partner Michaela Havelkova.

Individually, Vladea had a reasonable shot at qualifying for the NCAA regionals before dropping a close, three-set match to Iowa’s Toni Neykova last Friday.

“I’ve been struggling with injuries, and now that I’m not so hurt, it’s nice to be out on the court, and I enjoy every single moment I’m out there,” said Vladea, a sophomore from Kitchener, Ontario. “I’m playing better than I’ve ever played before.”

Last season, despite playing with a wrist injury that lasted into the fall, Vladea earned all-conference honors with an 11-11 record.

“She’s an inspiration to me,” said senior captain Andrea Rose, who rooms with Vladea. “She’s so much fun to watch. She’s one of the hardest workers on our team, and she’s been battling through injuries, but you wouldn’t even know when you watch her play.”

A force in singles competition, Vladea has been a part of the strongest component of the team. The Gophers’ No. 1 doubles pair of Vladea and Havelkova – who has also battled with injuries throughout the season – are currently ranked No. 58 in the nation.

Thomson said the two could finish the season without losing another match.

“(Havelkova) pushes me so much,” Vladea said about her doubles partner for the past two seasons. “We work so well together it’s unbelievable. We’re just playing really well together.”

In the upcoming Big Ten championships – which start in Bloomington, Ind., on Thursday – Vladea’s play will be a huge factor in the last place Gophers’ bid for a first-round upset.

With a 7-3 Big Ten record, compared to a combined 8-37 mark by the rest of the team, Vladea has been a player Minnesota could count on all spring.

“She’s been playing amazing,” said senior Jennifer Howard. “I don’t know what to say. I watch her play sometimes and I feel sorry for the person who has to play her …. She’s tough to beat and awesome to have on our team.”

Jabari Ritchie covers tennis and welcomes comments at [email protected]