Sauska set to make impression

Aaron Kirscht

As Gophers freshman Nora Sauska began to climb the national tennis rankings, losing only once in her first 22 matches and reaching the top 40 by mid-season, she seemed like a sure bet to take her place atop the Minnesota record books.
But after a handful of losses near season’s end, her ranking dropped to No. 62. Still, her 23-4 record is the best achieved by a Gophers freshman, and she earned only the third invitation to the NCAA tournament in the history of the program.
“I’m very excited,” Sauska said. “It’s been a goal for me. I don’t like to set my goals too high, but this is a big one.”
Since the Gophers bowed out in the first round of the NCAA Midwest Regional tournament a week ago, Sauska has been in training for the biggest tournament of her young collegiate career.
“She’s earned the right to be there,” Minnesota coach Martin Novak said, “and she’ll see that she wants to go back because of the quality of the people there. She’s going to realize she belongs, and that will be a big boost for her.”
Sauska has spent this mini-camp hitting with teammates and some members of the local tennis community, and recovering from some cold and flu symptoms that slowed her as the season wrapped up.
But while Sauska’s game is on the rebound, she still isn’t playing at the level she reached earlier in the season. On a scale of 1-10, Novak said Sauska is about a seven. “If she gets it up to eight in the next couple of days, she’s got a chance,” he said.
“I’m ready,” Sauska said. “The way I’m playing now is good. It will be nice to play the best players, and hopefully I will play my best.”
The tournament draw will be finalized on Saturday, and match play begins on Monday in Stanford, Calif. Novak is hoping Sauska will draw an opponent with an aggressive serve-and-volley style, which he said would compliment her steady play.
Sauska, on the other hand, isn’t so picky. But before going into her slump, Sauska said she hoped to meet some old foes from her native Hungary — players ranked well above her whom she’s beaten before.
“I would like to play them, yes,” Sauska said, “but I will play anyone now.”
Four Hungarians, not including Sauska, are slated to play in the tournament: Mississippi’s Agnes Muzamel, UCLA’s Kati Kocsis, Arizona State’s Reka Cseresnyes and Pepperdine’s Zsofia Csapo. All were ranked in the top 40 the entire season; against this group, Sauska is 2-2.
Sauska’s ranking has fluctuated wildly for most of the season, and it’s headed down more often than not. Her current No. 62 is her lowest of the season; she peaked at No. 39. But Novak is convinced that Sauska’s talent places her among the nation’s best.
“We know what she can do,” he said, “she just needs to be afforded the opportunity.”
“You don’t want to project too far. But certainly, on a good, fresh day, she has the capability to beat all of them.”
Sauska and Novak leave for California on Friday, in hopes of alleviating the effects of travel and adjusting to the weather before the tournament starts. Novak says he plans to snare a hitting partner from another team in preparation for Sauska’s first match on Monday.
And both are well aware that Sauska is only a pair of matches away from being the Gophers’ first All-American — as a freshman.
“That’s our ultimate goal right now,” Novak said. “Not too many first year players make it. That’s why I’m so pleased she made it, because it really reflects on her quality and what she’s done this season.”