| By Brian Coleman
Credit photo: Stony Brook Athletics

Over the last few years, the women’s tennis team at Stony Brook has been one of the top programs in the Northeast, winning 25 of its 34 matches over the last two seasons, including an America East title and a trip to the NCAA Tournament.

Much of that success can be attributed to standout junior Elizabeth Tsvetkov, the Brooklyn native who plays first singles for the Seawolves.

“She is probably one of the most unorthodox players I have ever seen, and can hit shots that her opponent isn’t expecting,” said Stony Brook Head Coach Gary Glassman. “She can do things you just cannot teach.”

Tsvetkov began playing tennis when she was around six-years-old, as her and her sister attended an after-school program which had tennis as one of its activities. But it was inside a basketball gym, and there was just a line and a wall for her to practice on, so her development as a player would not come overnight.

“My dad was very big on sports,” said Tsvetkov of her father, Valeri Tsvetkov. “He was an Olympic skier from Russia, and he always wanted me to be active.”

She first got onto an actual tennis court when she was 10-years-old, and it would be a few more years after that when she began taking lessons with Lawrence Kleger, the current director of tennis at the John McEnroe Tennis Academy.

“Her mom asked if I could look at her daughter and see what was wrong with her game. I hit the first ball to her, it was probably about four feet away, and she literally stands there and watches it go by,” Kleger recalls. “I hit another ball, same thing. I hit another, and she sort of bumps it into the net. I said to myself: ‘I need to get this girl going,’ so I had her do an agility drill, and she basically walked through the whole thing. I said there is nothing wrong with her game … she just doesn’t want to play.”

But as the weeks went on and she began to attend group training sessions, Tsvetkov opened up more to the coaches and other players around her, and her game began to blossom.

She captured her first few doubles titles at tournaments and won a couple of rounds at the Easter Bowl in singles, and as more success came, her confidence continued to grow.

She enjoyed a fantastic career at Leon M. Goldstein High School for the Sciences in Brooklyn, where she helped lead the Dolphins to two PSAL titles, and would play alongside future Stony Brook teammate Becky Shtilkind.

Her junior year in high school would turn out to be one of the toughest for Tsvetkov, as her father tragically passed away. And just a short time after, she tore her ACL, halting the tennis progress she made.

But the tough-minded Tsvetkov was resilient and pushed through these difficult times.

“She tore her ACL right around the time I was talking to college coaches about recruiting her,” Kleger said. “She had the surgery, and went through rehab like someone in the NFL trying to get back—with 100 percent dedication and discipline.”

Because of her dedication, Tsvetkov was given clearance to return to the court by the beginning of the following summer, but it was tough to get a college coach to offer her a scholarship due to the fact she hadn’t played in a year.

But Kleger placed a call to Glassman, and gave his highest recommendation for Tsvetkov, and she joined the Seawolves program.

“I definitely wanted to stay close to home because of the way my junior year ended, with my dad passing away and tearing my ACL,” Tsvetkov recalls. “I didn’t really want to go far. I knew Stony Brook was a great school and had a Division I tennis program. I knew Becky [Shtilkind] and Nadia [Smergut], we played when we were younger. I went there for a visit and liked it right away.”

By the fall of her freshman year, Tsvetkov was already in the singles lineup, playing fifth singles for a Stony Brook team that would eventually win the America East Championship and reach the NCAA Tournament.

“I really wasn’t expecting much in my freshman year, I was just happy to be playing in the lineup. We had a really competitive team,” said Tsvetkov. “We had Polina Movchan and Christina Vozniak was also there. It was tough in the beginning to get adjusted to it, but I saw what I was capable of, and I just wanted to improve on that in my sophomore and junior years.”

She posted a 22-7 mark in singles play her freshman year and that only contributed to her growing confidence, and her sophomore campaign is where Tsvetkov really took her game to the next level. She moved up the lineup to first singles and didn’t miss a beat, going 22-6 and becoming the star of the Stony Brook program.

At just 5’6”, Tsvetkov does not seem physically imposing on the court, but her unique style makes her a fun player to watch. She possess a great forehand from the left-hand side and loves to get around the ball to get to that forehand, and has the ability to hit the ball flat and low up the line for winners. She has also developed a great spin serve, particularly on the ad side of the court, and utilizes that lefty spin to devastate opponents.

“I don’t play beyond the baseline, I’m almost always in front of the baseline,” said Tsvetkov of her style of play. “When I was younger, I started playing in a basketball gym, and there was just a line and a wall, so I had no other choice but to stand in front of the line. My game has been that way ever since. It takes time away from the opponent. I don’t think they expect it a lot of time and I think that works to my advantage.”

So as we approach the spring season, Tsvetkov hopes to lead Stony Brook, now in the Missouri Valley Conference, to a conference championship and a potential trip to the NCAA Tournament. 

“A lot of what we need from her is on-court leadership with the other players,” said Glassman. “Being a junior and one of our top players, it is important to instill that into the rest of the team. And personally, I think if she continues to improve, she’ll qualify for the NCAAs.”

Tsvetkov will assume the leadership role of her team as she has come a long way from the quiet kid who first started training with Kleger. But if you ask anyone around the John McEnroe Tennis Academy or the Stony Brook program, her personality and sense of humor, and she will have no problem leading the Seawolves.

Brian Coleman

Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for Long Island Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at brianc@usptennis.com