Jan. 10, 2013
A roll of the dice two years ago on the international recruiting trail could be looked back upon as the start of a new beginning for the Houston Tennis program.
Patrick Sullivan, one of the top up-and-coming coaches in the country who was hired as the new leader for the women's tennis program on June 6, 2012, took to the road in his first season as head coach at Stephen F. Austin, where he made possibly the most important recruiting trip of his career.
The Houston native made the trek to Greece along with a native of the country who was a friend of Sullivan in his previous job at the University of Arkansas, and the two met up with the Greek Davis Cup coach to discuss a prospect, but were greeted with unexpected advice.
"He told us that the girl we were looking at was alright, but that he had another girl who had pro potential," Sullivan explained. "He said that she had been injured, but that she was the one we needed to be looking at."
The player he was referring to was Elena Kordolaimi, who had recently suffered a severe ankle injury and had been told she may never play again.
Sullivan was unable to visit Kordolaimi while there, but made contact afterwards, and what he found was a determined player and an even better person.
"At first I cried and I thought that I wouldn't try to do anything else," said Kordolaimi regarding her injury. "That's why I chose to major in kinesiology because I thought that if I can't do something else, then I can help other people's dreams come true because I know what it feels like to not be able to play."
Based on a recommendation and multiple discussions with Kordolaimi, Sullivan took a leap of faith and offered her a scholarship.
"Her enthusiasm is what stood out to me in our conversations, which, to me, is the number one quality in people," Sullivan said. "If you love what you do and you're passionate about it and have even just a little bit of talent you can make something great of yourself. I was obviously a little worried about the gap and her lack of playing time in that really crucial developmental time when players take big steps forward. However, it was probably the hungriest player that I've ever talked to that was so ready for the opportunity. She told me she would do whatever it took to be great."
Kordolaimi thanked Sullivan for his gamble by posting a stellar freshman campaign at SFA, winning 23 of 31 singles matches as the Ladyjacks climbed as high as No. 35 nationally and made their first ever appearance at the NCAA Tournament.
"I think it can be as great as people can possibly imagine, from winning conference championships to going to the Sweet 16, or even more. He's a person that really loves his job and puts the players as a priority, and I don't think all coaches are like that."
When Sullivan took the job at Houston, he brought Kordolaimi along - not to disrespect his previous job by taking a top player, but for everything she brings off the court that could be beneficial to the new squad he was taking over.
"It was big because she knows what we're trying to accomplish, as far as the team culture, work ethic and attitude," Sullivan said. "She had already done those things for a year and succeeded, on and off the court, so it was not only bringing in an instant number one player, but also someone who was a great testimonial that if we stick with this philosophy, it's going to work. I think when other girls on the team saw our relationship, they immediately respected what we were trying to accomplish because they saw how far she had come in one year."
Kordolaimi has immediately made an impact, leading the squad with eight singles wins during the fall season, while seamlessly fitting in with her new teammates and surroundings.
"It's awesome," said Kordolaimi. "Everybody is great and people are supporting me everyday. The girls have great personalities and the chemistry is outstanding. I think that's why we will get to the next level; because we're playing with people we love."
Knowing Sullivan better than most at the University of Houston, Kordolaimi is very confident in his ability to take the Cougars to the next level.
"I think it can be as great as people can possibly imagine, from winning conference championships to going to the Sweet 16, or even more." Kordolaimi said. "He's a person that really loves his job and puts the players as a priority, and I don't think all coaches are like that."
Kordolaimi could be the first building block for the bright future of the Houston program, and she will always be thankful for the coach that decided to give her an opportunity.
"I know he's a great person because not many people will take the chance on you after an injury," Kordolaimi said. "Imagine yourself sitting at home searching for a job, and just because someone heard something about you, they give you a shot. It's great and not many people do that."
"I think what we try to do is build relationships that transcend tennis," Sullivan said. "Four girls from my first Arkansas team came to our fall tournament to see me, and that was the best part of my weekend. The fact that eight years later there are girls that will come all the way to Houston to hang out is why I do this job. Hopefully that will be Elena eight years from now coming back to support."
A random set of circumstances two years ago led Sullivan to Kordolaimi, and the two are both extremely grateful for their new opportunities at the University of Houston.