The Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, for decades, has played host to the greatest stars of the sport—from John McEnroe to Steffi Graf, Roger Federer to Serena Williams.
Now, Veronica Popovici and Simona Synkova can say they’ve played there, too. The University of Wyoming women’s tennis program made perhaps the strongest statement in its 15-year history last fall, when Popovici and Synkova became the first Cowgirls to win an Intercollegiate Tennis Association regional championship and advance to play on one of tennis’ grandest stages. The UW duo was among 20 teams to qualify for the National Indoor Championships, held in Flushing, N.Y., at the same facility that hosts the U.S. Open, one of professional tennis’ four major annual tournaments. They finished 1-1, losing their opener but rebounding to win a consolation match.
“It was a really good experience for us, and also for the future,” says Synkova, a junior from Bratislava, Slovakia. “It was really interesting to play there and see how confident everyone was. We realized after the first match that we need to be as confident because we know that we can be that good. When we played our consolation match, we went into it with more confidence and played much better.”
Success has followed the Cowgirls since Kati Gyulai, who played for UW from 2001-03, took over as head coach in September 2008. Already, Gyulai is the second-winningest coach in school history.
The list of achievements during Gyulai’s tenure is impressive:
While such accomplishments may be enough to satisfy some competitors, Gyulai and her players aren’t content. “We want to win conference as a team, be a top-45 team in the country and go to NCAAs as a team,” says Popovici, a sophomore from Piatra Neamt, Romania.
The Cowgirls, who warmed up for the 2012 spring season with three singles titles and three doubles titles last fall, appear on the right track to meet those goals.
“We want to win a championship,” Gyulai says. “We are close. We were in the semifinals [last season]. That is our prize, and we keep our eyes on the prize. We have positioned ourselves on the national map, but we need to continue moving forward.”
Fittingly, the Cowgirls’ unprecedented success coincides with the opening of the university’s Indoor Tennis Facility, a state-of-the-art complex that features six courts, a UW team room and locker room and a viewing area above the courts. The first matches were played on the indoor courts last March.
“I came back because I knew where I was coming back to,” says Gyulai, who coached at the University of Texas-Pan American, the University of New Orleans and the University of Louisiana-Lafayette before returning to Laramie. “I knew the people, I knew the university. I have always felt taken care of here, and I knew I could do that for our student-athletes. I also thought that the program was in a position where I could bring tremendous improvement. It was a challenge, and I take pride in it.”
The Cowgirls’ 20-match spring schedule opens Jan. 28 with the first of seven home matches.