Five thousand miles away from Bloomington, in August of 2019, Alexandra Staiculescu and Mila Mejic stepped onto flights departing for the United States.
Both had committed to play collegiate tennis for the women’s team at IU. Staiculescu was leaving Bucharest, Romania, while Mejic left Subotica, Serbia.
“When I was eighteen, there was just a period of time where I was thinking about what I want to do in my life,” Mejic said. “I decided I would love to come to the United States and pursue a good education and just enjoy tennis and competing.”
The two current juniors, recruited by head coach Ramiro Azcui, would be a part of the 2019 freshman class. They would join two other international players on an eight-athlete roster.
“Tennis is such an international sport,” Azcui said. “There’s a high level of prospects out there, and it’s nice to be able to get some of the good international players to come to Indiana.”
The recruiting process for international athletes starts with Azcui and his staff identifying potential recruits through international tournaments. From there, they find the player’s age group and reach out through social media to see if they have any interest in playing college tennis.
“You have to do a lot of homework,” Azcui said. “There’s so many good players out there and you can’t go to every single country to find those players.”
For Staiculescu, who had spent time competing in small professional tournaments, college was an opportunity to continue playing tennis. Although she was hesitant to play in college, she lacked the finances to become a professional player in Romania.
“It was a tough decision because I wasn’t ready to quit the sport I had been playing my whole life, but I also wanted to go to school,” Staiculescu said. “That’s kind of why I chose the United States and to play for school.”
IU also sends a coach to a recruit’s country to watch them play. Both Staiculescu and Mejic, after they showed interest in playing for IU, were visited by a coach.
“It is extremely important to us to send someone to visit their country just because of the culture of our program and the way I run our program,” Azcui said. “I feel like our program is a little more family-oriented, so the way I want to bring in players is that they’re going to fit that mold.”
IU quickly became a second home for the two players. For Mejic, the campus reminded her of her home city. She said that like Subotica, IU was warm and welcoming. Staiculescu felt a connection with the coaches and found the campus beautiful, saying that IU felt like the right place for her.
“IU really felt like home,” Mejic said. “I can’t find just one thing that I really love about it.”
Although they both love IU, becoming a collegiate athlete had its own set of challenges. Neither Staiculescu nor Mejic were used to the rigorous schedule or different approach to the game that came with playing in the United States.
“I wish I would’ve been told that it’s not going to be easy,” Staiculescu said. “You really have to stay motivated all the time if you want to be successful at every point of your life.”
Azcui, who left Bolivia to play at Abilene Christian University from 1984-1987, understands how his international players feel. He tries to use what he went through in college as an international athlete to help his players and coaching staff navigate the challenges that come with the team’s diverse roster.
“It’s a big adjustment for freshmen, a big adjustment to everything: the culture, the food, the music, everything for them,” Azcui said. “The only constant, the only known thing that they have, is their game. It’s their racket and their game.”
But at the end of the day, despite difficult adjustments and challenges, Staiculescu wouldn’t change her decision in coming to IU.
“Being a student athlete requires a lot of work and dedication, but I’d say that everything is definitely worth it,” Staiculescu said. “You’re going to have a lot of great experiences with the team and within the department and with school.”
Mejic wouldn’t change it either.
“My favorite part is that it really feels, even after two years, that you’re living a dream,” Mejic said.