Entering her senior year of high school, junior Sandra Maletin did not imagine herself leaving Serbia to continue her tennis career and pursue an education.
Now, almost four years later, the five-time Missouri Valley Conference Singles Player of the Week has found a home in Peoria.
Maletin met coach Matt Tyler the summer before her high school senior year at a tournament in Serbia. Tyler was in the area recruiting with help from assistant professor of sports communication Dunja Antunovic, also from Serbia. He said he was looking for a player like Maletin. She, however, was originally completely against the idea of coming to the United States.
“After my match [Tyler] came up to me,” Maletin said. “He was like, ‘Hi, I’m Matt Tyler from Bradley University in Peoria, I saw you playing. I would like you to come to America to study and play tennis.’ It was right after my match and I just looked at him, kind of with a mean face, and said no. “
Eventually, Tyler, along with her parents, convinced Maletin to attend Bradley. Originally the physical therapy department sparked an interest. She was completing her high school coursework in the subject.
“My dad thought it was a good opportunity to study and get a degree, which is important to my parents, and still play tennis,” Maletin said.
“Everything came together,” Tyler said. “Her family was very forward thinking in knowing that an education is very valuable. I was able to make a connection … with both Sandra and her family.”
Much like many other freshmen worldwide, Maletin’s first year away from home was rough and rocky. On the courts, she played at No. 1 singles but only posted a 14-14 record, her worst in three years. She wasn’t sure if she was willing to come back.
“Freshman year happened and I didn’t want to be here,” Maletin said. “That was my first time away from my family for that long. I wouldn’t be here without coaches … and also my team.”
Playing at both the No. 1 singles and No. 1 doubles spot since her freshman year, Maletin has cemented herself as a leader on the team. Currently she boasts a 13-1 singles record for both the fall and spring seasons this academic year.
Maletin stayed in Peoria this past summer and she decided to put in the work, which explains her singles six-match win-streak.
“It was either be the best or be average, and I don’t like being average,” Maletin said. “Last summer I stayed because I wanted to work on tennis and also to see Peoria in different eyes, not just during the school year. Nobody was here so I had time for myself. I didn’t know what to do with myself, so I started working out more than I usually do. I was on the courts until 9 p.m.”
Coach Tyler also credits her success to the work she put in during the summer.
“We run our summer camps for kids all summer long,” Tyler said. “Sandra was one of those people who was there for us day in and day out. She really worked hard. She had the afternoons to work out. We have some really great tennis players in the area too so she got some great training partners.”
However, Maletin’s success has not come without her setbacks. This past fall season she reached the MVC individual championship for the second time, losing to tennis-only member school Stony Brook sophomore Jamie Wei.
“It did [motivate] me, but also it showed me that I had another opportunity to win,” Maletin said. “That day was not my day, and it happens. It motivated me to play better and just be better on and off the court.”
Although she has a year left, Maletin looks to continue her tennis career after school. Now a hospitality leadership major, she is also looking at combining tennis with her degree.
“[Hospitality leadership] gives me the opportunity to combine my job and tennis, at maybe a country club as a tennis pro or as a manager,” Maletin said. “Right now I’m working on my tennis coach certification … so I can coach others.”
While Peoria may not have been the college home she envisioned, Maletin has made the most out of her time on the Hilltop with her teammates.
“They’re kind of my second family,” Maletin said. “I literally came here alone and didn’t know anyone except coach. They helped me push through.”