SE: Together by Tennis — Four Seniors Enter Final Season at K-State

Palma Juhasz tells it best. 

As one of four seniors on the K-State women’s tennis team, she recalls a laughable story from her freshman year that only begins to explain the bond she now holds with the other three — Iva Bago, Livia Cirnu and Maria Panaite. 

All hail from various places in Europe and speak English as a secondary language. After an exhausting day, Juhasz remembers her teammates switching to their native language in casual conversation. The only problem was none of them spoke the same language as Juhasz. 

“It was just funny when someone talked to me in their native language because they felt like I’m closer to them. Eventually when you’re tired and you don’t have to use English, someone just started to talk to me in Croatian or Romanian,” said Juhasz, from Hungary. “I was, like, ‘I have no idea what you’re saying but I appreciate it because I know you’re talking to me because you felt like I’m close and you can approach me that way.’ 

“I feel like that’s something that just shows that we are close. Really tennis just brought us together.”

Indeed, tennis created a connection between the four that will last a lifetime. Since they all entered in the same situation — new to the U.S., its culture, customs and language — they leaned on each other during the learning process.

“We all got along, we all liked each other, so it’s a good feeling and good to know that someone is always there to support you,” Juhasz said. “I feel like every year we just learn more and more about each other and what we need to work on or how we can help each other if they are down. Really, we just grew up together.”

Panaite said the connection between the four goes well beyond tennis, too. 

“We are really good friends outside of tennis as well,” she said. “We discuss everything, like school or what is going on. We have our little family, but it is not just for these seniors, it’s in general for the whole team. So I think that association with family that everyone makes for K-State, it’s true in our team as well.”

Only two of the seniors — Panaite and Cirnu, both from Romania — knew each other before K-State and shared native languages. Nevertheless, they would face plenty of the same hurdles as the other two. 

To start, there was the language barrier. For most, the move also included a shift from clay courts to hard courts and their first heavy dose of competitive doubles play. Topping off their first season, K-State changed head coaches when Danielle Steinberg took over the program, to add yet another adjustment.  

“Freshman year was crazy either way with adjusting to everything,” Cirnu said. “It was kind of just one more thing added to it. I think we all dealt well with it and pushed through.”

Through it all, the four seniors, who’ve combined for 151 singles victories at K-State, benefitted in countless ways from their experiences. 

“That was the best decision ever,” Cirnu said of coming to K-State. “It was hard being away from family, but I definitely say that this has made me tougher and I have grown as a person. I love K-State.”

Specifically, they’ve enjoyed the culture of college tennis, where individual matches go toward the team’s score as opposed to before when each player was only concerned with her match. 

“I love it. Back home nobody would really be for you except for your family. All of your (tennis) friends are for you but they’re not because they are competing against you,” said Bago, who is from Croatia. “Here you at least have your team who is always cheering for you and you really know that they are there for you whenever you need help or something on the court. It’s a different spirit when you play for a team, not just for yourself. You can celebrate together, not just with yourself.”

Panaite agreed. 

“It makes it more fun because before, of course you wanted to win anyways but now it’s not just you,” she said. “If you lose, it doesn’t affect only you but the whole team, so you are even more motivated. We support each other because it’s impossible to play well all the time. It’s good to have someone that has your back.”

Now, the four serve as team leaders. Each has a certain leadership role or strength, however.

“One of us is responsible for something that we are good at, so that’s kind of split on those four sides very well. We feel responsible for the whole team but it’s not all on one person, so that’s good,” said Bago, in charge of selecting match-day uniforms as well as helping keep the team organized for upcoming events and announcements. 

Panaite lives with K-State’s two sophomores — Millie Stretton (Scotland) and Ana Garcia Navas (Spain) — and has mentored them through their adjustments, many of which she’s already experienced. 

“I’m trying to tell them about my experience because, of course, the first year is the hardest and then it gets easier,” Panaite said. “I’m trying to keep them positive. I’ve been through those things, I know how it is, and I’ve told them it’s going to get better.”

Cirnu compliments Panaite’s leadership style, bringing a glass-half-full attitude to about every situation.

“I’m always positive, even when things get tough,” Cirnu said. “Obviously everyone has their bad moments, but I think that’s my thing.”

Finally, Juhasz is the rule follower, displaying a consistent level of discipline in her daily actions. 

“Luckily there are other people who are more funny and joke around, so I feel like it’s a good balance,” she said. “I try to keep everyone accountable and working hard. I just try to be a role model and show the younger players what they need to do when we are gone. I feel like that’s the most important role for all of us, to show them and leave a legacy that they can carry on.”

The four seniors begin their final season at K-State this weekend at the OU Invitational in Norman, Oklahoma. Each shares a similar hope for what the season, which begins conference play in the spring, will bring. 

“Since it’s my last year in college tennis, it’s kind of exciting but it’s a bittersweet feeling,” Bago said. “The four of us, we were all talking about it, we’re just trying to get the most out of it, just enjoy every single moment here because it’s really a special thing to play for (K-State).”

“I just want to play and be happy about playing tennis,” added Cirnu. “That’s why I started playing, because I was enjoying it. I want to put aside all the hard practices and just focus on being happy playing tennis.”