By Amanda Phillips
CORAL GABLES, Fla. – As a kid, Lina Lileikite loved to watch Martina Hingis play on television.
Hingis, a five-time Grand Slam singles champion, was Lileikite’s favorite player and the reason she wanted to start playing tennis.
“I was watching her with my dad and I really liked the game, so I told my dad that I wanted to try,” Lileikite said. “I remember my first practice. It was really fun and I really liked it. The coach gave me my first ball.”
Hingis may have sparked Lileikite’s interest in tennis, but the Liepaja, Latvia native’s stellar play earned her the chance to come to the United States to study and play tennis. That was an opportunity she could not pass up.
“There are a lot of tennis players from my country who have also come to study and play tennis,” Lileikite said. “So I thought it would be a good opportunity to play hard and also get a degree from a really good school.”
The sophomore had offers from other universities, but she had a special bond with Miami women’s tennis head coach Paige Yaroshuk-Tews and her coaching staff.
“I spoke with both assistant coaches and Paige using Skype,” Lileikite said. “Paige liked my humor and I liked hers. We just started to get to know each other.”
Once at the University of Miami, Lileikite not only had to get used to the different cultures in Miami, but speaking English, as well.
“When I came here, I was struggling with the speaking part,” Lileikite said. “I learned English only in high school and then just to prepare for the SAT and TOEFL. I was learning it, but I wasn’t really speaking too much.”
The sophomore’s prowess on the tennis court speaks for itself. Yaroshuk-Tews has seen Lileikite improve significantly since arriving in Coral Gables in 2011.
“I think she’s more mentally tough,” Yaroshuk-Tews said. “She is more positive on the court and she understands her strengths and weaknesses. I think she understands her game a little bit better.”
As a sophomore, Lileikite already faced some tough opponents. She has impressive wins over Rachel James-Baker of 35th -ranked N.C. State, No. 59 Allison Falkin of 24th-ranked Illinois, and No. 102 Courtney Colton of 26th-ranked Vanderbilt.
“I think it’s easier for me if I don’t know when an opponent is ranked,” Lileikite said. “If I don’t know, then I’m just playing my game.”
There is still plenty of tennis in the Latvian’s future, but Lileikite is focused on ending this season the right way.
“First of all, we have to focus on the last couple of matches,” Lileikite said. “Then we’ll focus on ACCs, which is a really good tournament. And then we’ll give everything to finish this season with NCAAs.”