Work means wins for Sauska

by Aaron Kirscht

Gophers freshman women’s tennis player Nora Sauska turns 21 today, and she has plenty to celebrate.
But don’t expect her to live it up the way some of her American counterparts often do, by swilling a variety of libations with politically incorrect names.
She’s going to play this one cool.
“I have to get my rest,” Sauska said. “I can go out later.”
It’s that kind of work ethic that’s helped Sauska, from Budapest, Hungary, fashion a team-leading 21-1 record. Most of those wins have come at No. 1 singles.
Not bad for a rookie. Then again, Sauska is hardly lacking experience.
She’s played since her hands were big enough to fit around the grip of a racquet. Under the tutelage of her father and coach, Istvan, Sauska played internationally before coming to Minnesota. Her resumÇ includes tournament wins in Austria, Hungary and the United States and a one-time junior rank of No. 150 in the world.
Head coach Martin Novak first saw Sauska play at a junior tournament in Miami. He offered her a scholarship on the spot, and after considering offers from Kansas and Georgia, among others, she committed.
“They (Novak and assistant coach Jennie Coughlin) saw me and talked to me first,” Sauska said. “I just thought they were the nicest, and that we saw things the same way. They made me feel good about (Minnesota).”
It doesn’t take long to see that Minnesota is happy to have her, too. But Novak says her early success may be just the beginning.
“She is young school-wise,” he said, “but she’s a very mature tennis player. As she keeps maturing, especially in finding an emotional balance, she’s going to become very difficult to beat.”
The adjustments to American culture haven’t come so smoothly. It’s not easy to cross the Atlantic and take up an entirely new lifestyle. But Sauska said having an uncle living in Connecticut was a big help.
“It was very hard,” she said. “I would call my uncle just to talk about things. It’s so different.”
The food. The language. The distance from home. Playing on super-fast hard courts instead of slow-footed clay. For a while, her tennis game suffered.
“It was hard to concentrate,” Sauska said. “I would be hard on myself, asking, `What am I doing here, I want to go back’ and those things. But it got easier.”
When asked what she likes most about the United States, her answer was simple: “Everything.” That has to help. She’s become more and more Americanized, and her tennis has continued to improve, as well.
“It’s not that she cannot be beaten, it’s just that the odds are against you,” Novak said. “It’s tough (for opponents) to get a read on her. They have to try to out-muscle her or out-patience her, and very few people are able to do that.”
No kidding.
She’s only been in the United States for seven months, but already Sauska is working on carving out a spot in the Gophers’ record book. Her climb to No. 40 in the Rolex Collegiate Rankings tied the highest mark ever for a Minnesota player. And if Sauska keeps up her current pace — she hasn’t lost since Nov. 8 — she would set a record for the best winning percentage in a season.
“I didn’t expect anything,” Sauska said. “I hoped. It wasn’t my goal to win like this. I just go out on the court and do it. And yeah, it’s nice to be 21-1. But now I just have to push it to the end.”