24: Veselinovic uses tennis as a refuge

Oct. 18, 2007

Editor’s note: 24 Hawkeyes to Watch is a feature released Thursday, Aug. 2, highlighting one athlete from each of the 24 intercollegiate sports offered by the University of Iowa. More than 700 talented student-athletes are currently busy preparing for the 2007-08 athletics year at the UI. Hawkeyesports.com will introduce you to 24 Hawkeyes who, for one reason or another, are poised to play a prominent role in the intercollegiate athletics program at the UI in the coming year.

by Josh Mitchell

IOWA CITY — Growing up in war-ravaged Serbia, Milica Veselinovic found life quite difficult. The fact that she was raised in an athletic family eventually became her ticket away from the violence, as her talent in tennis allowed Veselinovic to move throughout Europe as a teenager.

Although tennis was the sport Veselinovic would eventually pursue, it wasn’t the first one she had tried. Prior to tennis, Veselinovic had done karate and gymnastics, but at the age seven she started playing tennis and it became her sport of choice. Veselinovic loves the fact that tennis is mental game and it allows her to do decide everything that she is going to do.

To keep Veselinovic away from the war in Serbia, her parents sent her out of the country when she was nearly 13 years old. Veselinovic spent time in Italy, London, and Germany. She said that living away from home was difficult at first because she had never been away from her parents. She was also forced to learn new languages and cultures, but she attributes her easy transition to the University of Iowa to her moving around as a teenager.

While relocating in Europe, Veselinovic chose to learn academics on her own so she could spend more time practicing tennis. Her typical day while living in Germany consisted of two to three hours of practice at 9 a.m., then another two hours at 4 p.m., along with weight training and running.

“When I was in Germany I would spend five or six hours on the tennis court,” Veselinovic said. “I couldn’t do that if I was in school.”

At the time, Veselinovic was preparing herself for a career in tennis, but later she found herself wanting to get an education rather than playing professionally.

While in Germany, Veselinovic caught the eye of former Iowa Coach Paul Wardlaw, who saw her name in the German tennis rankings. Veselinovic remained in contact with the UI and its coaches for two years. While they were in contact, Veselinovic moved back to Serbia at age 18 to finish her high school requirements so she would be able to move to the United States.

The continual moving and competing against different styles throughout Europe helped Veselinovic increase her playing abilities, which sparked Iowa’s interest. Not only was she able to learn how to live on her own, but the European competition toughened her so she would be ready to compete collegiately in the United States.

While relocating in Europe, Veselinovic chose to learn academics on her own so she could spend more time practicing tennis. Her typical day while living in Germany consisted of two to three hours of practice at 9 a.m., then another two hours at 4 p.m., along with weight training and running.

“In Europe, every time you turn around, you’re in a different country,” said Daryl Greenan, Iowa head women’s tennis coach. “There are academies over there and you have different game styles and they’re so competitive. Every time you turn around you’re getting knocked down and you have to figure out a way to get stronger and improve so that you’re ready for the next one.”

Iowa was the first school to contact Veselinovic and it was also the only school to visit her, which is rare with foreign recruits. Toni Neykova, a former Iowa tennis player and current assistant coach, visited Veselinovic while on a trip to Neykova’s home country of Bulgaria. The visit allowed Neykova to meet Veselinovic’s family and get a sense of the type of person Veselinovic was. The understanding that the two had helped solidify Veselinovic’s decision to attend Iowa.

To Veselinovic’s surprise, just five days after arriving on the UI campus, Wardlaw left the team to take the head coaching position at Brown University.

“It was kind of shocking because he had just asked me to come here and then he’s gone,” Veselinovic said.

Without a head coach, the team was in limbo as Neykova assumed the daily coaching duties. Transferring was not an option.

“I never considered leaving Iowa,” Veselinovic said. “I did get really afraid because I didn’t know if we were going to have a team for my sophomore year, but I just decided to stay here to see what was going to happen. We actually had the best team my sophomore year and I’m really glad that happened.”

That fall, Iowa hired Greenan as the head coach and although he had not recruited Veselinovic, he knew early the type of player the Hawkeyes had. Greenan noticed quickly that Veselinovic “wears her heart on her sleeve.” He saw an animated and competitive spirit and over the years Greenan said has thoroughly enjoyed watching Veselinovic on the court.

“I’ve always enjoyed watching Mili compete because I always believe that no matter what is going on, she is absolutely trying to find a way to win,” Greenan said. “She’s at least played a couple hundred matches by now and rarely, in particular singles, does she ever throw in the towel.”

That competitive spirit has been something that Veselinovic has had to occasionally keep in check. By never competing on a team prior to attending Iowa, she didn’t always understand the team concept. It was difficult for Veselinovic to grasp why she was competing in the No. 4 spot, because she felt she was much better. Once Veselinovic began to understand that she was in that position for the betterment of the team, she excelled. Although Greenan admitted that he had some flexibility with his top four players when he arrived, he felt confident that Veselinovic could win in the No. 4 spot every day.

Competing at No. 4 also gave Veselinovic an opportunity to gain confidence at the collegiate level and ultimately win more matches than any other freshmen in Iowa’s history. One of her current goals heading into her senior season is to break the Iowa career victory record of 102 — a mark she is just 13 wins from surpassing.

With aspirations of staying in the U.S. and becoming a collegiate coach, Veselinovic’s maturity throughout her career at Iowa should help in the long run.

“Emotions aside, she has a true sense of reality,” Greenan said. “She doesn’t come up with excuses. She doesn’t deflect blame. She knows if she screws up. She knows why she screwed up and what she needs to do better next time.”

With 15 years of playing experience, competing against a wide range of playing styles, Veselinovic knows the game of tennis well. She’s independent, organized and motivated to succeed. Greenan believes that Veselinovic can succeed at whatever she does.

“I’m looking forward to the day, 10 years down the road, when she calls me up and says now I see. Now I understand,” Greenan said.

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