The Next Step

Jan. 18, 2018

DENTON — After a successful 2017 North Texas tennis season that earned them a program-record five all-conference selections ended in the semifinals of the Conference USA Tournament for a third consecutive year, head coach Sujay Lama made it a point of emphasis to make sure it didn’t happen again.

“We have all come together with the same goal,” said captain Maria Kononova. “There’s a lot of competition on the team and no one wants to be the weak link.”

With no seniors on this year’s team it’ll be up to the three juniors who are expected to lead the Mean Green on the court to also be leaders off the court and help North Texas get over some of last season’s humps.

Leading the charge is Kononova.

The junior from Russia had the program’s greatest single seasons in program history last year.

In 2017, North Texas’ No. 1 singles player set the program record for dual match victories with 18. Her .782 winning percentage was the second highest in program history and was just .006 off the record. She beat the No. 16 nationally ranked player in straight sets and in her two years at UNT has posted a 7-3 record against ranked opponents. 

In doubles, she and her partner Tamuna Kutubidze won 17 straight No. 1 doubles matches and finished with a .944 winning percentage.

In total, Kononova set seven program records last season and concluded the year being named the North Texas Athletics’ Student-Athlete of the Year. 

“I don’t think about last season that much,” Kononova said. “It was last year. I’m proud of what we accomplished but in order to get better you have to keep looking forward.” 



Kononova isn’t alone on the court, though. The Mean Green believe this year’s team will be one of their most competitive teams in recent memory and the competition will help the team continue to grow. 

A key to this seasons’ success will be the level of competition their two freshmen bring to the table, which the team is very confident in.

This fall Nidhi Surapaneni claimed six singles victories, including her first three straight. Three of her six wins this fall came over power-5 schools on the biggest stage. At the ITA Texas Regional in October, Surapaneni defeated Texas Tech’s Gabriela Tenorio in straight sets and then defeated Texas’ Chelsea Crovetti in straight sets as well.

Surapaneni comes to North Texas with high honors.

She made a Grand Slam playing in the first round of the Australian Open Juniors doubles and the qualifying final round in singles. She finished with a career-best ITF World Junior ranking at 167. At 16 years old, Surapaneni won the Indian Women's National Tournament. A Singapore transplant, she was the No. 2 ranked player in the country for girls ages 16 years old or younger. 

Along with Surapaneni, the Mean Green have added Sille Tranberg.

Tranberg was unable to compete early this fall but since her first competition in early November she has proven to be ready.

Tranberg posted a 4-2 record in the preseason and in her first ever collegiate competition she defeated her Texas Longhorn opponent in straight sets, 6-0, 6-0.

A Denmark native, Tranberg was the country’s No. 7 ranked women’s player at the country’s highest division. She won the under-18 singles, doubles and mix doubles championship in Denmark and was selected to play for the Danish national team at the European Championships.

“The freshmen are very talented,” Kononova said. “They’re in great shape and great competitors. It’s been great to see how far they’ve come in just one semester.” 

Last season’s freshmen played important roles in the Mean Green’s postseason run and now a year older they are expected to only increase their role.

A skill the three brought to the table last year was their ability to contribute in a variety of ways.

Haruka Sasaki picked up victories at three different spots in the lineup last year, she became just the second North Texas freshman tennis player to accomplish that under now 12th year head coach Sujay Lama

Sasaki, who has been recognized by her coaches for her work ethic, had a productive fall that included six wins and an impressive come-from-behind win over Kansas’ Carla Pons Martorell.

Ivana Babic and Alexandra Heczey also proved last year to be strong competitors for the Mean Green and also moving forward.

Last season, the two paired up nine times in doubles and posted a perfect 2-0 record against ranked teams. 

The hard-hitting Babic collected five wins this fall and defeated conference foe Diya Menon of UT- San Antonio in straight sets at the Rice Invite in August. 

Heczey also had five wins and defeated Texas’ Tyler Duncum in straight sets in November. 

“The sophomores have made great strides this summer and I think being more familiar with what is expected will help them and us take that next step,” Kononova said. 

Along with Kononova, there is a great possibility the two other juniors will join her atop the Mean Green lineup after the successful fall Kutubidze and Minying Liang had.

Last year, Kutubidze struggled early in the year with injuries but overcame them to be named first team all-conference for doubles and second team all-conference for singles. She finished with 11 singles wins at the No. 2 spot. 

The fierce and competitive Kutubidze joined the more subdue Kononova for a magical doubles run that saw them start the year 17-0 and this past September earn a No. 22 national ranking.

Liang had one of the most memorable matches of 2017.

With the Mean Green season on the line and facing match point in the third set, Liang fought her way back to win, 4-6, 6-0, 7-6, and clinch the team’s conference tournament first round win over Middle Tennessee, 4-3.

Liang ended last season winning five of her last six matches and this fall has shown that same competitiveness with four three set victories. In two of those matches she faced match point at one point. 

You don’t have to spend much time at the Waranch Tennis Complex before you hear the phrase “mental toughness” or some form of it.

Lama, a very holistic coach, stresses the importance that his team competes not just with its physical play but that their mind, body and soul is tough to fight through the difficulties that a long season can present.

“We have to make sure we’re very focused,” Kononova said. “The strong energy in our match can carry over to the other matches happening at the same time and you can feel it and it helps. We need more of that.”  

North Texas’ 2018 schedule, which features 21 dual matches, is a marathon but the Mean Green begin the season on Friday with healthy competition.

Friday, UNT travels to the American Athletic Conference champions University of South Florida for an 11:00 a.m. CT match start time.

The Mean Green will play their first home match on Jan. 27 versus Louisiana Tech at noon. 

As per usual, North Texas will challenge itself with a number of power-5 competitors. In total, UNT will face five schools from power-5 conferences, including four in a row from Feb. 3 to Feb. 14.

“We like how coach Lama challenges us with the best competition in the country,” Kononova said. “We want to play the best and it prepares us well for the conference tournament. And if we want to take that next step we have to be as ready as possible.”

The 2018 C-USA Championships will be held on the campus of Old Dominion in Norfolk, Virginia from April 19-22.

North Texas Mean Green