The first thing Natalia Alekhova did when she came to the United States was learn how to speak English.
Then she had to adjust to representing the UNM women’s tennis team on the court.
Today, Alekhova is a senior playing in the number one position, which means she faces opponents’ top players every match.
Alekhova is a native of Novosibirsk, Russia, the capital of Siberia. At 11 years old, she and her father learned to play tennis together.
“My coach was my dad,” she said. “Both of us didn’t know anything; we figured out everything together.”
Their joint learning process helped Alekhova use her tennis abilities to pave her way to the United States and give her the experience of a different language and a different country, she said.
Her first destination was Minnesota. Before Alekhova could get into an American university, she had to pass the Standardized Aptitude Test and an English proficiency test for international students. Women’s tennis coach Kathy Kolankiewicz got word of Alekhova’s talents from former UNM tennis coach David Geatz, who is now the men’s head coach at the University of Minnesota. Alekhova said that Kolankiewicz was the only coach who told her that she would wait as long as she needed for her to pass the tests.
“I knew I had to pass the tests in May, and I started (studying) in September, so I had almost a year,” she said.
The TV and radio remained on all the time so she could continuously listen to English, she said.
It took a while for her to catch on, and calling home in frustration and tears was not uncommon, she said. A Russian/English dictionary became a dependable guide for Alekhova as her vocabulary increased daily.
“One day it clicked, and I began to understand,” she said. “It was a great feeling.”
She studied list after list of English words, until all that was left to do was pass the tests. Alekhova will soon graduate with a double major in psychology and Russian and a minor in communications, and has never had a grade point average below 3.5. She said coming to UNM has been as much about competing on the court as Alekhova’s desire to get an education.
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“I am very proud of what she has done in the classroom,” Kolankiewicz said of Alekhova.
Alekhova is playing in the top spot in both singles and doubles with partner, Neza Kurnik.
“She is so tough mentally,” Kolankiewicz said. “She is a very competitive tennis player.”
Alekhova said she is stubborn on the court and makes her opponents earn every win.
To date, Alekhova has 98 singles wins in her UNM career and is close to breaking the all-time record of 113 held by Ana Friganovic, a former teammate and friend. Friganovic, who is now an assistant coach for the team.
Alekhova said she uses tennis to release energy and frustration and that she loves playing and competing.
Playing number one will be a test this season for Alekhova. Last year, Alekhova ended the season ranked eighth in the Mountain West Conference individually and she is now sixth.
“Every match is going to be tough for me,” Alekhova said. “Every game is going to be a battle.”
Alekhova looks forward to going into coaching or trying to play professional tennis when her college career ends. Wherever she ends up, Alekhova said that her experience at UNM has been different and wonderful.