FEATURE: It's All About the Team
March 19, 2014
By Derrick Fazendin-
Whether it’s the World Cup, the Olympics, or the prestigious Fed Cup in tennis, the chance to wear your nation’s colors in athletic competition is something most athletes can only dream of.
For University of Houston sophomore tennis player, Maria Andrea Cardenas, this dream became a reality this past November.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Cardenas now says. “It was just an unbelievable honor and a moment I’ll never forget.”
That was her reaction after she found out she was chosen to represent her home country of Venezuela in the upcoming 2014 Fed Cup, which is regarded as the top international tennis tournament in the world.
Fed Cup play has now come and gone, and the Caracas, Venezuela native posted zero wins and zero losses in the competition. In fact, Cardenas didn’t even attempt a single serve for the national team. Not only did she not play, but she didn’t even go.
“I was really proud of her,” University of Houston head tennis coach Patrick Sullivan says. “I gave her the opportunity to go, in fact that was one of the deals we made when she got to Houston, that if she was offered a spot on the team, we would undoubtedly as a coaching staff support her decision to go and do that.”
“I left it up to her. She came to me one day when she realized that she’d have to miss one of our matches in order to play in the Fed Cup, and said ‘I’m not going to go. I want to stay here. Playing for the University of Houston is my priority’. “There’s literally no higher honor than playing for your country, not to mention that would have been the first time for her,” Sullivan continues, “so I don’t think I even need to explain to anyone how big of a sacrifice that was.”
For most, the decision not to play would have been a difficult one, but for Cardenas, in her mind, there was really never a decision to make at all.
“It was a little disappointing for sure because I’m sure it would have been a great experience, but I’ve committed to Houston, and I want to win here,” she states. “I hope I get another opportunity later on to play for my country, but we have a chance to do some really good things this year and go places where the program hasn’t gone before, and I want to make sure we do that.”
When the Cougars’ spring season began back in January, Houston team members knew (or thought they know) that they would be without one of the squad’s best players for two of the toughest matchups of the season against nationally ranked North Texas and Kansas. In fact, almost no one knew of Cardenas’ decision to not play until late January.
“We all thought she was playing, at least I did,” freshman Despoina Vogasari says. “I kept telling her how happy I was for her and how much fun she was going to have.”
Vogasari (from Greece), along with fellow freshman Tina Rupert (from Slovenia), know just how special the offer was, as both have played for their respective national teams in Fed Cup play.
“It’s a big deal,” Vogasari says. “It’s even a bigger deal that she turned down the offer, but it means a lot to our team.”
Cardenas, along with Vogasari and Rupert, represent a 2013 Houston signing class that was named as the sixth strongest recruiting class in the nation and the top amongst mid-majors just over a year ago.
The group aims to guide the Cougars back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998, and for just the third time in school history.
“Just because you don’t have the ‘C’ on your chest doesn’t mean you can’t be a leader on this team,” Sullivan says. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re a senior, junior, sophomore, or a freshman, everyone has an opportunity to be a leader and make their mark.”
“I’m not sure if she even fully realizes it, but Maria’s (Cardenas) decision not to play, was just about one of the most unselfish things she could have done. I don’t think I even have to explain to people just what kind of a person she is, her actions pretty much just say it all.”
Cardenas spent her freshman season at Auburn University, where she received very limited playing time. In just her first season at Houston, she’s already compiled a record of 15-7, which is the second highest win total on the team.
In a world that considers international competition as one the highest honors and most unselfish acts an athlete can participate in, Cardenas may have found a way to top it all.
“You know, I love these girls,” Cardenas says. “At the end of the year we want to be a top-30 team, and I think we have the group to do it.”
“It may sound crazy to some people, but I think-- well we think-- we have the talent to be in the Sweet Sixteen as well.”
And Cardenas is right. She isn’t the only one who thinks the 2014 Cougars have a chance to do something special this season.
In fact the “special” may have already begun according to Vogasari.
“As long as we have Maria, this team can go as far as it wants to.”