It was the first day of school — one week into the Morro Bay High girls tennis team’s season — when an unknown foreign exchange student approached coach Kathy Dannecker with a simple, well-spoken proposition.
“She showed up and said ‘I would very much like to be on your tennis team,’ ” recalled Dannecker, who, not thinking much of it, replied “I would very much like to have you on my tennis team.”
At that moment, the eight-year coach did not know the talent she had just inherited. It didn’t take long to find out.
“The minute she started warming up,” Dannecker said, “I could see she played a different level then we’ve ever had anyone play.”
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She is Alzbeta Hermanova, a shy and polite 16-year-old star from the Czech Republic junior tennis ranks who walked away from a promising professional career to expand her horizons in the classroom and in the world.
“I saw my friends be at the top of my country (in tennis) — they really don’t have a normal social life,” said Hermanova, who added she would have had to quit school in order to keep up with the rigorous pro training schedule. “They were just on tennis courts; they weren’t hanging out with friends, and they weren’t going to school.”
So Hermanova joined a band of classmates signing up to study abroad in the United States, where she had visited twice before with family.
She chose to spend the 10-month program in a brand-new place, California, because of the weather, and joined the tennis team as a way to stay active and involved with girls her age outside of the classroom.
Ranked as high as No. 17 in the junior circuit of a country that has produced such tennis icons as Martina Navratilova and Ivan Lendl, Hermanova hasn’t missed a beat on courts thousands of miles from her hometown of Prague.
She is 30-0 overall and 24-0 in Los Padres League matches for the Pirates. She’s dropped a game or two along the way, but Dannecker said that’s because she plays shots her opponents can return instead of ending every rally with a quick winner.
“It’s not just her play,” the coach said, “but it’s also her composure, her stability, her emotional maturity that all come together to make her so solid. It’s beautiful to watch.”
Practice makes perfect
It wasn’t always that Hermanova ruled the court, and she said her early struggles, tough-love trainers and daily practices help her appreciate the strides she took.
“I was really bad,” Hermanova said of her start at the age of 6. “I was in a club for small children, and they told me I was really bad and that I have to get better.”
Motivated by the internal need to stay active, she started working with a personal trainer when she was 10, playing tennis two hours a day in addition to running and other conditioning.
Soon after, the results started to change.
“One year after I was with this trainer, I was playing in tournaments all the time and then I started to win matches,” Hermanova said. “I was like, ‘Oh, that’s weird.’ Because before, I wasn’t winning any matches. So I thought I’d try it once more.”
Once became twice, and twice became continuous. By the 2013-14 season, she was a regional champion, getting offers for international tournaments and working with other Czech standouts such as 2014 U.S. Open junior champion Marie Bouzkova.
But those successes came with a price, as Hermanova started spending more and more time at tournaments than in class or anywhere else. To have a chance at being competitive at the international level, she would have to leave school altogether to compensate for the daily six-hour training sessions.
Many of her friends chose tennis, but it became clear to Hermanova that wasn’t the path for her.
“I couldn’t talk with them about anything; just tennis,” she said. “They like it, but I really didn’t want this life, because it’s boring.
“And … if I were to get hurt, I wouldn’t be able to do anything else because I’d have no other abilities.”
Her parents, both psychiatrists, had financed her venture from the start, but were just as supportive in her decision to put tennis on the backburner instead of in the forefront.
“My father grew up playing tennis, but as a hobby, so it was the same as me,” Hermanova said. “Both of my parents were supporting me as much as they can, but they told me ‘Now you see how it is. They don’t have a life.’ ”
Eager for a new adventure, she flew out of the tennis spotlight and landed in a seaside California town.
Fitting in with the Pirates
Morro Bay is not a Los Padres League girls tennis powerhouse, and Hermanova’s arrival won’t be enough to change that this season.
But her emergence to a scene usually dominated by the Pirates from Santa Ynez gave the entire team an otherwise unattainable triumph.
From the moment Hermanova joined the team, senior Tess Badrigian said she couldn’t wait for the teams to face off, especially after Santa Ynez wore hats and shirts that said “Undefeated” the year before.
She turned to her new teammate when the match came on Oct. 2 and simply said, “No mercy.”
Hermanova got the message and went to work.
“She swept all of them,” Badrigian said with a laugh. “It was great.”
Sure, Santa Ynez won 14 of the other 15 sets, but Dannecker said Hermanova’s 6-0, 6-0, 6-0 thrashing was a win for the whole squad.
“She knew beating those girls would be a big step toward going to CIF,” her coach said. “And she knew what it meant to the rest of the girls.
“She’s so mature and experienced that she just really knows how to handle herself. Even though she doesn’t have a lot to be gained from our practices for herself, she sticks around to help out our other players.”
Dannecker said the two agreed Hermanova can miss one or two practices a week, and she’s spent that time focusing on schoolwork with her host family.
Hermanova’s full arsenal isn’t on display in league matches, but she imparts that knowledge and experience on her teammates.
“It’s not like I want to win all the trophies,” she said. “I want to see the difference (between American and Czech players), and, of course, help the team and my mates.”
Hermanova, who goes by Bety for short, has been speaking English for six years, and said the language is prominent back home.
“It’s almost everywhere,” she said. “When you are going to cinema in my country, there are English movies, maybe with the Czech subtitles.”
Following her parents’ profession, she likes sci-fi and psychological movies, such as the 2010 mind-thriller “Inception,” and varying types of music from hard rock and metal to Top 40 pop.
She uses the video-conferencing program Skype to speak with her parents once a week. They speak in Czech, but Hermanova said when she emails her mother, she recently found herself writing solely in English.
Her coach hasn’t let her leave behind all traditions.
“I had her teach me some Czech words,” said Dannecker, who learned that “excellent” is “vynikající” and “good” is “hezký.”
There’s been no need to learn the antonyms.
And while it took some time to get acquainted, Hermanova said she enjoys being part of a team — a camaraderie she didn’t have back in the Czech Republic when it was just her and a trainer.
“She’s really funny,” Badrigian said. “I talked to her on her first day, and she told me how she was ranked. She was really humble about it. It was really funny, I just said, ‘Oh, you should definitely play on the team.’
“We love having her out here, and it’s good for everyone.”
The LPL tournament will be played on Halloween, and Hermanova is expected to advance to the CIF-Southern Section individual tournament, where she may face the area’s other undefeated phenom, Arroyo Grande’s Sophie Whittle.
Dannecker said she hopes to get the two together for rally practice prior to the CIF tournament, and as for how she thinks Hermanova will do against the best in the state, the coach said, “I really just don’t know. It’s going to be fun to find out, though.”
No matter the outcome, Hermanova said she’s already achieved what she set out to accomplish.
“You have complicated feelings when you are leaving home,” she said. “You want to have an experience, but you know that you will miss everybody, so it’s kind of hard. I decided I wanted change, and I didn’t want to stay at home and just go to the same school and same life.”