By Anthony Rhoads
The Clayton State Lady Lakers tennis team is like a miniature United Nations.
The seven-player team features players from seven countries including Russia, Bulgaria, Canada, Colombia, Sweden, Venezuela and Zimbabwe.
They have come from four continents to Clayton College and State University in Morrow and have formed a formidable force on the tennis court.
The team is currently sixth-ranked NCAA Division II team in the nation and in 2002, the Lakers made the NCAA Division 16-team national tournament.
Even though tennis is the glue that binds them together, their purpose goes beyond what happens on the court.
"It's been a good experience I think," freshman Michell Zulu, of Zimbabwe, said. "I think it will help us because we'll be able to adapt better to different cultures. It's been a big adjustment because I'm in a foreign country but my teammates are from a different culture too."
The heart of the team is a trio of seniors including Nathalia Collantes (from Colombia), Jackeline Nieto (from Venezuela) and Natalia Koulechova (from Russia). All three have made their marks on the tennis program at Clayton State.
Last year, Collantes was named an All-American in doubles and was ranked 27th in the nation in singles and fifth in doubles. In singles she was 16-0 last year. She has also earned all-conference honors.
Collantes is currently ranked 29th in the nation as a singles player.
She was a high school All-American in singles at Flanagan High School in Miami and won district and state titles her sophomore and junior years. She graduated early and didn't play her senior year.
Nieto was an All-American last year in singles for the second straight season and was named an All-American in doubles. She's been a two-time all-conference selection in both singles and doubles.
She and Collantes are ranked fourth in the nation in doubles and as a singles player, Nieto is 23rd in the nation.
"It has been great because people now know about the tennis team," Nieto said. "It feels good to be here and make people know about Clayton."
Koulechova has also seen Clayton State rise to national prominence on the tennis court.
In 2001, she was the first Clayton State player to be named to the All-Peach Belt Conference team and she has one of the highest winning percentages in school history.
"All the teams now are scared to play us," Koulechova said.
Freshman Elizabeth Syrova is another Russia native on the team but her family moved to Canada when she was 7.
She comes from an athletic family n her mother was a tennis player and her father was a basketball player.
"I think it's great (here at Clayton State) because you get to learn about different cultures," she said. "I spend a lot of time talking to my teammates and learning about their cultures. I think that we've learned to be more of a team more and less as individuals."
Freshman Daniela Petkova is another player whose travels took her to Canada. She was born in Bulgaria but like Syrova, she grew up in Canada.
Petkova shares another common trait with Syrova n she also comes from a family focused on sports.
Her mother was a professional swimmer, her father was a professional water polo player and her brother Todor, plays hockey in Canada and was on Bulgaria's 2003 World Cup team.
"I think it's pretty fun having players from all over the world and having different cultures," Syrova said.
"Everyone is so different with different personalities. It builds a stronger team."
Freshman Kim Lennartson, of Sweden, stresses that the diversity is beneficial to the team. They are not just teammates; they are friends on and off the court.
"It's been very interesting and exciting for me," Lennartson said. "We are learning a lot from each other and we have a good time together here. In our team, (the diversity) makes us a good team. We have a good spirit on our team."
When Lennartson first came to Clayton State, she admits that it was challenging. She had to get used to being in another country, adjust to college life and focus on becoming a better tennis player.
"At first it was really tough and everything was so overwhelming," she said. "Compared to Sweden, it was very different. I was homesick but now I'm enjoying playing tennis and enjoying college life. I think this whole experience will help me develop as a person and a tennis player."
On the web ? http://athletics.clayton.edu