April 10, 2014
LARAMIE, Wyo. -
Cowgirl tennis star Veronica Popovici didn't know what to expect.
When she came to the University of Wyoming, sight unseen, from Romania, she pictured a place much like her hometown of Piatra Neamt, mountainous with dense forest.
"I thought Laramie would have a lot more trees," she says laughing. "That surprised me." Nothing else--her tennis, her education or ability to adjust to a totally new world--seems to have surprised her.
Popovici, whom everyone calls Vera, came to Wyoming without making a recruiting visit. Now, four years later, the Romanian senior has become the finest player in UW tennis history, and will be playing her last home matches for the Cowgirls when Wyoming hosts Boise State tomorrow (1 p.m.), and Utah State on Sunday (10 a.m.).
"I don't regret for a moment that I came to Wyoming," she said before practice on Wednesday. "The people I've met, my teammates and my professors have all been wonderful, and I've gotten to play the sport I love." While she is used to being away, she wishes her parents would have been able to come to this country to see her play. They were never able to, unfortunately.
Popovici began playing tennis at the ripe old age of six. Her father, Neculai, played the sport as a hobby, and since "I was breaking everything in the house", he thought his young daughter ought to learn an outdoor sport. Her younger brother, Catalin, was more comfortable indoors. He is an accomplished pianist.
Tennis seemed to be a natural fit, so the family selected a coach to work with her and she was on her way. Popovici started playing in tournaments a year later as part of a local club team and she was traveling as much as five or six hours from her home to compete at various tournaments.
"Tennis is very popular in Europe, especially the Eastern Bloc countries, so it was not unusual for me to get into that sport," she says. "I loved playing, and as a child I was on the court two or three hours twice a day, plus I was traveling all the time. I actually got tired of the travel and decided not to play for a year. But I missed it terribly and couldn't stay away. "
Like so many young players it was Popovici's dream to play professionally. But she knew a lot of young women who were heading to the United States to attend college and play tennis and realized that her future would best be served taking that route. She began receiving emails and calls for American universities while in high school. She decided to come to the United States, and narrowed her choices to the University of South Carolina and UW.
"I decided to come here because I knew Kati (Gyulai, Cowgirl head coach at that time) through my coach in Romania, and I really liked her. So I came to the United States and Wyoming without the recruiting visit. It turned out to be the best decision I've ever made. It was great that Coach (current Head Coach Dean Clower) stayed with us because it (he was Gyulai's assistant) made the transition a lot smoother."
Clower is certainly grateful to have had his senior leader in the program. "Vara's tennis `IQ' is amazing," he says. "She understands the game, is a super competitor, and is the kind of person who makes my profession so rewarding. She has always been open to coaching, and to making herself the very best she could. It probably took her a year to adjust to the speed of our courts in this country. But she changed her game completely to be successful. I have all the respect in the world for her.
"She has had four different doubles partners, for instance, and has been successful with each," Clower continues. "During her time here she has a win over the number one doubles team in the country (Notre Dame), and last year made it to the Elite 8. That's what she's all about. Believe me, she's been a joy for me and for her teammates."
Popovici is majoring in family and consumer science with a concentration on human nutrition and food. Following graduation, she wants to attend graduate school at either Wyoming or at school in Denmark. She hasn't made that decision as yet. "I want to help people through their diets. I want to make them aware of what they eat and help them realize how important good choices are. It's getting better, but it's amazing how badly so many of us eat." Working as a hospital dietician or possibly a sports dietician would be a career goal.
While she has put together a terrific career on the courts, her education has been extra special to her. "I've been so impressed with the opportunities I have had here, especially as a student," Popovici says. "My professors have been great to me and have always gone the extra mile for me. I've learned so much."
The challenges Popovici faced after she made her collegiate decision were interesting and exciting but none was more daunting than learning to play on American courts. "I grew up playing on clay where points were much longer, and you played further behind the baseline," "We had lots of rallies. When I got here and started playing, I wasn't sure if I could get used to the speed of the game especially at this elevation. I had to change my game, incorporate volleys, play at the net, and become a lot more aggressive. It was just so fast-paced, I couldn't get into a rhythm. It took me awhile to adjust."
One would say she adjusted quite nicely. Popovici is a three-time All-Mountain West performer in singles, and a two-time All-MW in doubles. The doubles honor was extra impressive since she had never really played doubles until she came to this country.
With her senior year winding down, Popovici says she will have lots of great memories of her Wyoming experience. "We have a wonderful facility (Indoor Tennis Facility), and I will never forget our conference matches here,the emotion and the fan support. There are a lot of people in this area who are passionate about the sport of tennis. While it doesn't happen for another month, I know I will remember my graduation day too. I will be very proud."
Vera has made Wyoming very proud of her.
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