International bonds key to WKU Tennis’ success


Arthur Trickett-Wile

Western Kentucky University Hilltoppers women’s tennis team celebrate with redshirt sophomore Paola Cortez (center) after she won the last set in their match against Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis Jaguars on the afternoon of Sunday, Feb. 6, 2022, at Michael O. Buchanon Park’s tennis facility. WKU won the match 7-0.

Izzy Lanuza, Sports reporter

WKU Tennis started its season with its best start in Division I program history. Along with its hot start, the Lady Toppers have the most diverse sports program at WKU with seven of its nine players coming from outside the U.S. Most of the team is from South America, and they regularly speak Spanish.

“I have two teammates from Venezuela, and one from Bolivia,” Redshirt sophomore Paola Cortez said. “They’re similar to my culture, they’re very close. Then, Laura [Bernardos] is from Spain. She’s very, very nice. Also Cora[-Lynn von Dungern] is from Germany, she’s a sweetheart. We don’t have any issues between each other. We try to help each other a lot with everything we need.”

Cortez is from Bolivia in South America. She said the people there are very different from in the U.S.; they’re very familiar and warm.

Cortez became interested in tennis after watching her cousins, brother and dad play. Before long, she was on the court playing with her whole family.

“I got my first tennis racket when I was like five,” Cortez said. “I started practicing when I was six, and then I started competing when I was eight, then [I] started winning championships [and] nationals.”

Cortez originally came to the U.S to play tennis at Kennesaw State in Georgia. She played there for two years before putting herself in the transfer portal.

“At the end of my second year, I didn’t have a good experience with my coach,” Cortez said. “We kind of were not on the same page anymore. ”

WKU coach Greg Davis saw Cortez in the transfer portal and started reaching out to her about potentially joining the team. Davis told Cortez that her experience at WKU would be different than at Kennesaw State.

“I really like him, and I think he really likes us,” Cortez said. “And he’s excited for the season. We’re excited for the season. We’re on the same page.”

Davis is looking for the best players for his team and he saw that Cortez fit his criteria.

“They’ve got to be high achievers, academically and athletically,” Davis said. “I gotta see both of those.”

Cortez reached out to the members on the WKU Tennis team to get a feel for the other players. She said they were so nice and welcoming to her she decided to join the team.

Cortez’s teammate, sophomore Samantha Martinez, is from Venezuela. Tennis is not a very popular sport in Venezuela, she said. There aren’t many tournaments, so Martinez would travel internationally to play. If she wanted to practice, she would have to drive an hour away from her home to the courts.

Martinez was recruited after she posted a video of her play on YouTube. Martinez reached out to Davis for a spot on the Lady Toppers’ team.

“We started talking, and he said even though my ranking wasn’t as high as it should be, he believed in me,” Martinez said. “He said I had to work as hard as I can.”

The tennis culture in the States is very different from Venezuela, Martinez said. The junior tournaments that Martinez used to play in are different from the college competition she plays in now.

“I used to play just on my own,” Martinez said. “I was playing for me and now I am playing for a team… You still have a lot of pressure, but you have the team, you know that the team is always going to be there to support you.”

Martinez has been able to improve her skill and knowledge about the sport despite this change.

“I know more; what I have to do well when I’m playing, what I have to do when I’m playing bad,” Martinez said.

Her knowledge and skill wouldn’t be what it is today without her teammates. The team is like a family, especially since most of their families are a continent away. When the team isn’t on the courts, they are with each other relaxing. They have movie nights and study dates.

Martinez said the team is “always gonna be there to support you.” This love for each other translates to the courts.

“You don’t have to get better only for yourself, you have to get better for your teammates,” Cortez said. “You have to win for your teammates.”

With a team so close, it can be a stressful process bringing in a new recruit.

“I come across a lot of really good players, but I don’t like what I’m hearing about them,” Davis said. “Meaning, as a transfer, sometimes those things concern me when I’ve got a group that gets along together.”

The team needs to be strong both internally and externally. If the team isn’t getting along, they may not do as well in matches.

“You have to navigate from the front of the bus to the back of the bus,” Davis said. “Whether it’s the top player, or the last player — they’ve got to all be on board, drinking from the same Kool-Aid and pulling on the rope in the right direction.”

This season, the players are competing as a team, rather than playing individually like they did in the fall. There’s more pressure when playing as a team; one player can be on the court deciding if the team wins or loses. Many of the new players haven’t played in a team setting before.

Davis is not sure how they will respond to the pressure. He is trying to develop comfort between the pairs.

“I’m so happy here and I’m glad I transferred, because I’m happier than ever,” Cortez said. “I know it’s going to be a great season, because we have a great team now.”

Sports reporter Izzy Lanuza can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on twitter @izzylanuza.

Sports Editor Wyatt Sparkman contributed to this story.