RCW: "Rych" Decisions
Always an active child, Anastasia Rychagova was faced with a choice that would become one of the most important decisions of her life. With her parents urging her to get involved in an activity, Rychagova had to decide between tennis and dance. She had seen her brother on the court, but her best friend was taking dance lessons. Following in her brother’s footsteps, Rychagova first picked up a tennis racket at the young age of four. However, she didn’t quite know what she was getting herself into.
“I thought I would just run to the ball, catch it and give it back to the coach,” said Rychagova. “They gave me a racket and I didn’t know why I needed it, but I had already made my decision so I decided I would just try it out.”
After years of training in her hometown of Moscow, Russia, Rychagova had been very successful in her tennis career. She was ranked as high as No. 60 in the ITF Junior World Rankings, competed in the French Open Juniors Tournament, won the singles at the Grade 4 T52 Cup Junior ITF (2011), Grade 5 Almetievsk Open Junior ITF (2012), Grade 3 Almetievsk Open Junior (2013) and Grade 5 Almetievsk Open Junior ITF (2012). Along with these championship finishes, Rychagova earned several top finishes in doubles action at multiple tournaments.
With her tennis resume built, Rychagova knew she had an opportunity to come to the United States and play tennis in college, but was wary about making the decision. Rychagova had heard rumors that tennis in college isn’t serious, that it’s bad and you don’t get any benefits.
“There’s a stereotype in Russia,” said Rychagova. “The players who are trying to become professional tennis players say it’s a bad choice to go to college. We heard a lot of bad experiences from the players who actually went to university in America. They struggled with coaches or had some sort of bad experience and just say stuff. They look at the bad experience and think, ‘If one person had this bad experience, I’ll just say everyone did and that it’s a bad choice to go to university in America.'”
Due to what she had heard, Rychagova didn’t decide to further her tennis career and education in the U.S., until February of 2015, much later than other players. By this point, most universities had signed all of their recruits and filled their rosters. Rychagova searched for any opportunity she could get. Nina Khmelnitckaia, a childhood friend since the two were 12 years old, told Rychagova about the University of Kansas.
Khmelnitckaia, also from Moscow, first learned about Kansas in December of 2014, when head coach Todd Chapman visited Russia. Chapman made the trip with the intention of watching one player, but Khmelnitckaia caught his eye. On his second day, Chapman watched Khmelnitckaia train and by the end of his two-day trip, it was obvious the player who he was most interested in was Khmelnitckia.
“I was intrigued by Nina as a player and her athletic ability,” said Chapman. “I thought not only the player, but the competitor she was really fit with what we were looking for. That happens sometimes in recruiting. You go to an event, tournament or practice to watch one player and someone else may catch your eye.”
At the time, Khmelnitckaia was only a few days away from committing to another university. Chapman knew he had to sell Kansas and hope she would give him and the team a chance. Luckily enough, she did just that.
In February of 2015, Khmelnitckaia took off on her own for a visit to Lawrence, Kansas. Immediately, Khmelnitckaia knew she liked the campus, team and coaches. Although she was furthering her tennis career, Khmelnitckaia’s parents wanted her to get a good education and Kansas was the perfect fit. While on her visit, Chapman asked Khmelnitckaia if she had any friends back home who would want to come to the U.S., to play college tennis. Wanting to bring a good player to the team, Khmelnitckaia brought up Rychagova.
“It’s always smart, especially when they’re from another country, to ask if they have any friends who would fit the mold and if it is someone I should be interested in as a coach,” said Chapman. “Nina mentioned Nastia’s (Rychagova) name and that opened the door for communication.”
Khmelnitckaia wasn’t going to leave it all up to Rychagova or the coach and took matters into her own hands. Ready to say yes to becoming a Jayhawk herself, Khmelnitckaia called Rychagova on her way back to Russia and told her everything about her visit to the University of Kansas.
“I called her and said, ‘I know it’s going to sound crazy, but you’re going with me,'” said Khmelnitckaia. “I told her everything and showed her a lot of pictures.”
At first, Rychagova’s parents were against her going to university and being that far from home. However, after the phone call from her close and trusted friend, Rychagova talked to her parents and together they began researching anything and everything about the university.
“My dad was stalking the university (Kansas) for awhile,” said Rychagova. “He would say, ‘I found this video about the university,’ or ‘Look at what’s coming to this university and this is their ranking.’ He wanted me to commit to this university because he had read good things about it. I didn’t have to visit because we knew everything already. It happened so fast. I was scared, but I just trusted Nina. She had great things to say about the program and a lot of good things about Coach.”
Information in hand and a friend at her side, Rychagova had to make a decision. After conversing with Chapman and learning more about the university, Rychagova committed only a week after Khmelnitckaia’s visit.
“Nastia was in a place where she was looking to make a decision pretty quickly,” said Chapman. “She actually committed a few days before Nina did. You never know what’s going to happen in recruiting. Sometimes you can work really hard for a year or two on a player and it just doesn’t work out. Sometimes timing works out perfectly and in that situation, with both of these girls, it really did.”
Coming from Russia, Rychagova didn’t know English very well. Overwhelmed at first, Rychagova was enrolled in multiple English courses and had the team help her practice her new, second language in addition to her preparation on the court.
“At first I didn’t think I could be here because it was so hard,” said Rychagova. “Back home, I thought I knew English pretty well, but when I came here I realized I didn’t know any English. People would say something to me and I would just look at them like, ‘What are you saying?'”
With college courses started and tennis travel beginning, Rychagova had gotten into the swing of being a student-athlete about a month in to the 2015-16 academic year. In the fall of 2015, Rychagova was selected to compete at the USTA/ITA National Indoor Intercollegiate Championship after collecting six-straight wins at the ITA Central Regionals before ultimately falling in the title match. She was the first Jayhawk to be selected for the prestigious singles field since the ITA began sponsoring the event in 2005.
“The coaches had a lot of impact on me,” said Rychagova. “(Assistant coach) Caroline (Lilley) had a huge impact on my game. She did a lot of individual (practice) with me and gave me this mindset that I didn’t have to concentrate on the results, just to go out and play every match and try to get better.
“In Russia, results were so important. If you weren’t doing well, people weren’t interested in you. Here, it’s all about getting better every day and trying your best. Even if you’re nervous, your team knows you gave everything on the court and competed your best. That’s what matters.”
According to Lilley, one of Rychagova’s biggest strengths is that she is stubborn. This stubbornness makes her a great competitor on the court. Her stubbornness, along with her willingness to do whatever it takes, her belief in the way that she’s prepared, and the amount of work and the quality of work she puts in throughout the week leading up to a match allows Rychagova to play her best tennis.
“I think more than anything it was getting her to believe in the process,” said Lilley. “The daily process of getting better and buying into celebrating the small victories. If she can improve every single day, then she’s moving in a direction that’s going to allow her to get the results that she would like.
“When you’re focusing on improvement, then your game is going to exponentially grow because you’re no longer putting the pressure on yourself to earn a result, but you’re putting pressure on yourself to be the best you can be.”
Rychagova earned her highest ranking to date on January 5, 2016, when she was named the No. 45-ranked singles player by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA). She was the first Jayhawk to enter the rankings since Ksenia Bukina opened the 2006 spring season as the No. 79-ranked singles player. As the spring went on, Rychagova tallied a 21-3 doubles record playing with Smith Hinton and Maria Jose Cardona. Rychagova and Hinton teamed up for 15-straight wins in doubles play. Rychagova also put up a 16-5 singles record, including going 10-3 against Big 12 opponents.
After her successful fall and spring seasons in 2015-16, the honors rolled in for Rychagova. She was the conference coaches’ unanimous selection for Big 12 Freshman of the Year, the first player in Kansas history to earn the honor. Rychagova also earned All-Big 12 First Team and Big 12 All-Freshman honors. She was the first Jayhawk to nab an All-Big 12 First Team selection since Magdalena Tokarczyk in 2008. Last, but not least, Rychagova was also the first player in KU history to be named ITA Central Region Rookie of the Year.
“I didn’t even know you could get honors so it was surprising for me,” said Rychagova. “It shows that you, the coaches and the team worked hard all year. It feels good because you know that you didn’t waste your time, that you were doing it for something.”
With dual play concluded, the Jayhawks geared up for the Big 12 Championship. Kansas topped Baylor, 4-2, to advance to the semifinals where KU would face the No. 1-seeded Oklahoma State Cowgirls. The Jayhawks fell to the eventual Big 12 Champion, but the match marked Kansas’ first appearance in the semifinals since 2002.
“After we beat Baylor in the first round, it was motivation to push each other harder in practice,” said Rychagova. “We just decided to go for it. We had a lot of motivation as a team and I feel like that’s why we had a lot of success last year (2015-16 season).”
Just three days after the league semifinal match, Kansas (17-7) awaited the announcement of the NCAA Tournament field. The Jayhawks saw their name flash across the screen as one of the first four teams announced during the 2016 NCAA Women’s Tennis Championship selection show. Although Kansas fell in the first round to UC Santa Barbara, the team made history as the Jayhawks had not been to the NCAA Tournament in 17 years.
After leading Kansas to its first NCAA Tournament bid since 1999, Chapman, in his third year with the Jayhawks, was named the ITA Central Region Coach of the Year. Chapman also led Kansas to a second-place finish in the Big 12 Conference standings, which marked the highest finish since the Jayhawks placed second in both 1997 and 1998. Chapman coached his team to a 6-3 record against Big 12 opponents, marking the most league wins by the program since it picked up six during the 2008 campaign.
“We were so proud of him,” said Rychagova. “It’s a huge honor. He did a good job. Both of our coaches did a really good job. They took this program from not being as great to competing at a high level. We know our coaches are great and (we) would be proud no matter what.”
Rychagova finished her freshman year with a 26-9 overall singles record and nearly matched that with a 28-6 doubles mark. Rychagova attributes her success to her team, especially her class comprised of Khmelnitckaia and Janet Koch.
“We were always there for each other when we needed someone,” said Koch. “As soon as I got here I felt at home. I could speak to just about anyone when I needed to. We shared so much together and when you see each other every day, you form a very strong bond.”
The freshman trio knew they were all in the same boat and struggling with the same things. While Koch, from Durbanville, South Africa, did not have as large of a language barrier, each of the girls were in a new country living a completely new lifestyle. The trio pushed each other in practice to play their best tennis every single day, leading to their success throughout the 2015-16 season.
“The mindset these players brought to this team made the biggest stamp on the program and the direction we were trying to go,” said Chapman. “They bought in to going out and competing, not worrying about outside factors such as the name on the opposing jersey or the rank in front of the names. We were going to go out and compete, play hard and bring that mindset every day to practice.”
With nearly two years of experience at Kansas under her belt now, Rychagova is leading her team by example, through her work ethic and mindset she brings to practice every day. Rychagova is not one to get on another player. She merely leads by example with her work ethic that she always utilizes.
“Nastia is not one who is going to get onto someone,” said Chapman. “She’s not overly vocal about telling someone that they need to change, what they’re doing or to do it her way. She doesn’t like to lose at anything she does and she’s competitive in everything she does. I don’t think that can do anything but help and bleed into the other players.”
She has been doing just that. Rychagova and her teammates earned a program-high No. 14 ranking on February 21. The ranking is the highest by Kansas since the ITA began releasing weekly rankings in 2000. Previously, the Jayhawks were ranked as the No. 23 team on February 23, 2016, and prior to the week-by-week rankings, Kansas ended the 1994 season as the No. 7 team in the nation.
As a sophomore, Rychagova has picked right back up where she left off last season, opening the fall 2016 campaign with three-straight wins at the Little Rock Invitational where she claimed the title of Champion of Flight A Singles. Rychagova and teammates Khmelnitckaia, Koch and senior Tess Bernard-Feigenbaum, became the first Jayhawks to compete at the ITA All-American Tournament since 2007. She recorded five wins in a row at the ITA Central Regional, but was bumped out during the semifinals. To close out the fall portion of the season, Rychagova teamed up with Koch to go 3-0 in doubles play at the Notre Dame Fall Invitational. She ended the fall with an 11-4 singles record, including 4-1 against Big 12 competition, and a 9-3 doubles mark after competing with Koch, Bernard-Feigenbaum and freshman Tatiana Nikolaeva.
“There are a lot of things Nastia can achieve in the next two and a half years,” said Chapman. “A lot of that will be based on her; what she chooses she wants to do, how hard she continues to work, develop and get better in the areas she needs to. I don’t think there’s anything she can’t achieve because I know the type of person she is and how skilled she is.
“The one thing we always talk about is that accolades, results and all the things you may achieve, come from the work you put in. If the mindset ever becomes about the things you get from working hard, you’re not going to achieve them. If she believes that what she brings to the table is going to be good enough and that if it’s not, it’s not, but not to focus on playing outside of her limits she will continue to be successful. She’s doing a really good job of that this year.”
Rychagova is currently the No. 74-ranked singles player in the nation as of March 7. Playing at the No. 1 singles position, Rychagova owns an 8-1 spring singles record. She has recently paired up with freshman Maria Toran Ribes in doubles action and the duo has won three-straight matches.
Thus far into the 2016-17 season, Rychagova holds a 19-5 overall singles record, including a 7-2 mark against ranked opponents. In doubles, Rychagova has put up a 16-8 record competing with four different teammates.
Now that Rychagova knows what college tennis is all about, she has goals for not only herself, but the team as a whole.
“I feel like our team is so good this year,” said Rychagova. “All the girls are working so hard. I know how good we can be if we all work together; we can achieve a lot. We can achieve even more than last year. The coaches put in so much time, it’s crazy how much they do for us. They really care about us. We can go to them outside of tennis and they’ll listen to us, but they don’t just listen, they help us any way they can. It means a lot to everyone on the team.
“I didn’t expect it (her experience at Kansas) to be this way. I came in thinking I was going to be lonely because my family was so far away, but I feel like the team is my family.”
Although her collegiate decision landed her more than 5,000 miles from home, it appears Rychagova continues to make the right choices. First, tennis over dancing and now, playing at the University of Kansas.