May 22, 2018
NCAA Championships Bracket
DENTON — As the North Texas tennis team's captain Maria Kononova began to walk across the stage at graduation she abruptly came to a stop.
In front of 900 of her peers and over 10,000 people in the Super Pit's stands, the Russian walked back to the woman announcing the graduates' names over the microphone and told her "it's pronounced Ko-No-Nova."
The woman, startled, corrected herself and Kononova proceeded to shake UNT President Neal J. Smatresk's hand and receive her diploma.
"I want to have my name on the walls and to be remembered," Kononova later said. "I want people to remember my name."
And rightfully so.
As a teenager, Kononova taught herself English so she could pass tests and be accepted into a university in the United States. When she came to North Texas, she knew nothing about American college tennis and relatively very little about her general situation. But in just three years from when she first stepped foot on UNT's campus, she not only has earned her degree and graduated Magna Cum Laude, she has accomplished feats on the tennis court that had never been done before in program history.
She's beaten the No. 2 ranked player in the country, gone on decisive long winning streaks in both singles and doubles play, been ranked as high as No. 41 in the country, been voted first team all-conference all three years and has played in and won some of the biggest college tournaments.
Except for one tournament.
The NCAA Women's Tennis Singles Championships.
However on Wednesday, Kononova will check that off her list and in doing so set another program-first as she will be the first in the women's tournament's history to represent North Texas.
"I love seeing the North Texas flags around town or people with the North Texas license plates," Kononova said. "I feel part of a community and to represent North Texas in a big tournament and to be the first is special."
But for Kononova who has professional tennis aspirations, this tournament is more than just making program-history. The 64-player 7-day single-elimination tournament is an opportunity for her to prove on the biggest stage against the NCAA's best that she is one of the elite tennis players in the country.
Something she's shown, albeit in a sample size, with a .710 winning percentage against ranked opponents and wins over top 20 ranked opponents, including an opponent who later was ranked No. 1 in the country for 12 weeks.
"Maria has proven that she is one of the best players in the country," said North Texas head coach Sujay Lama. "We believe she has the talent and ability to make a serious run in the tournament."
Over the past two seasons there have been moments when you didn't need to know the score of Kononova's matches. You didn't even really need to understand how tennis works. You just knew Kononova was going to win that day.
Sometimes you knew even before the match began.
As you watched from the sideline, the score became meaningless. Even if the match went into a decisive third-set, as it did on Feb. 23 against the No. 2 ranked player, wiith her superior skills and poised demeanor on these days it didn't matter who she was matched up against, Kononova was going to win.
While her highly touted opponents desperately screamed and yelled to try and use every ounce of energy to grab any sense of momentum, Kononova typically paid no attention, which has maybe been her greatest strength.
Kononova explained as a child growing up in Ufa, Russia, that she used to get knots in her gut before matches. But now, she's grown so confident in her game that she's found peace in the outcomes and said you could roll her out of bed in the middle of the night and she would be ready to face whoever.
Even for this coming tournament, Kononova thwarted any thought that she might be nervous.
"I'm not concerned about winning the whole thing," Kononova said. "I'm not concerned with who I play. I just want to play."
When Kononova steps foot on Wake Forest's Tennis Complex on Wednesday as the first to do so in the women's tournament's history she says she won't feel like an outsider. It's a place she and North Texas belongs.