April 26, 2013
By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Insider
Battling through a stress reaction and other ailments that limited her last season, Ema Burgic still managed to earn All-American honors in doubles and post a 16-4 dual-match record in singles.
But she knew that wasn't enough.
While her tennis game has obviously improved dramatically, the real turning point for Burgic came two months ago in a match at South Bend, Ind.
"I won the first set 6-0 and then lost the match," Burgic said of a 0-6, 6-1, 6-2 loss to Notre Dame's Britney Sanders, "because I went back to my old way of playing. When coach would tell me something, I wouldn't believe him and I would go my own way. And then I lost it, and I saw that he gave up on me at that point. It felt so bad when I saw that he didn't care anymore. He knew I was going to lose. And after that match, I told him, `From now on, whatever you say.' And since then, I don't think I've lost a match."
Ranked 10th nationally in singles and eighth in doubles with freshman Victoria Kisialeva, Burgic actually lost two of the next three matches. But the sophomore from Bosnia is one of the hottest players in the country, winning 14 in a row going into the Big 12 Championships that start Thursday with women's first-round matches at the Headington Family Tennis Center in Norman, Okla.
"I felt like I had finally hit rock bottom with her and I couldn't get through to her anymore," said Baylor head coach Joey Scrivano, whose team won eight in a row to win a share of the Big 12 regular-season championship. "It was painful for her and painful for me when you get to that stage where you have no more options here but to move on."
Burgic is a phenomenal 39-8 in singles this season, including a 22-5 dual-match record, and is 22-3 in the doubles pairing with Kisialeva. But Scrivano insists that her best work has been done off the court in holding this fragile team together.
With a pair of transfers and three freshmen, the only experienced players coming into this season were Burgic, fellow sophomore Megan Horter and junior Jordaan Sanford, who had transferred the year before from Maryland.
"Honestly, I was a little bit scared," said Burgic, who knew she had to take on the added leadership role. "No one has been through the Baylor tradition, and no one knows what Baylor is all about, because it's not like any other college. There is a legacy behind it. And it's hard for me, because I had only been here for one year and I didn't really have anyone to lead me. I knew it was going to mostly be on me and Megan, because Jordaan is not the type to really speak up. She shows it on the court. But it was up to me and Megan to try to get everyone on the same page."
And when first-semester freshmen Maria Biryukova and Kiah Generette were added to the team in January, "they didn't know what was going on, and you can't just to talk to them all the time, because they're going to think we're nuts."
"Ema has done a lot of things behind the scenes to pull this team together," Scrivano said. "The facts are, on any team everything is pulling you apart. Every single thing is trying to pull your team apart. So the more people you have like Ema, who are pulling it together and trying to unify the group, it only helps."
What Burgic saw all along, though, was that this team had talent. Not that you could really tell when the Lady Bears got off to a 7-13 start and lost a Big 12 match at home to league newcomer TCU.
"There were points where it was really hard, and I just wanted to say, `I've had enough. I can't do it anymore,''' Burgic said. "I had to focus on the court and do all this other stuff. I just wanted to give up. And coach would be like, `No, now is the time when you need to show the leadership and you need to be tough.' And that's what I did. I never gave up.
"I always believed. Everyone is talented, and everyone knows how to play tennis. It was just a matter of the time when everything would come together, like all the pieces of the puzzle."
On an individual basis, that's what her freshman year was like. Bothered by the stress reaction, along with back and hip problems, "I was just on the court and basically standing and playing; and we were trying to find a way just to win."
After seeing a specialist in Dallas last summer, Burgic was equipped with an orthotic for her foot, and "I could tell immediately."
"It felt amazing. It was kind of weird at the beginning, that I could actually do everything on the court," she said. "I was surprised that I was able to actually run down the ball."
Another turning point for Burgic came in a three-set loss to Cristina Sanchez-Quintanar in the ITA Southwest Regional final.
"I lost that match because I wasn't emotionally stable at that point," she said. "But I learned a huge lesson from there."
That maturity and emotional stability also helped her deal with one of the toughest points in the year, when Horter suffered an off-court injury that would keep her out the rest of the season.
"Even now when I see her, it's so hard, because you have never seen a person that works harder than her, that wants it more than her. She wants it for the team," Burgic said. "And I remember telling the other girls, `OK, from now on, no excuses. If you're hurt, if you have small pain, anything, no one can complain about anything. . . . So whenever you want to complain about anything, just think about Megan."
Of the nine regular-season championships he's won, Scrivano said this was the toughest, "just because of the quality of competition and all the adversity we had within our own team."
The 19th-ranked Lady Bears are the somewhat surprising top seed for a tournament that includes second-seeded and 17th-ranked Texas Tech, third-seeded, third-seeded and 25th-ranked Texas and fourth-seeded and No. 27 TCU.
"I think the biggest thing for this team breaking through here this last six weeks is they trusted what we were doing on a daily basis," Scrivano said. "And that's going to be the biggest question this weekend, because we've been two teams. The first half of the season, we were a team that was trying to do it on their own, trying to do it their own way, not trusting the formula. And then the latter part of the second half, they finally bought in. So, it's going to be really interesting which team is going to show up this weekend. And I don't know."