When Alexandra Starkova was a little kid growing up in Madrid, Spain, she decided to stop hip hop dancing and start playing tennis.
It was love at first racquet.
School would finish at two in the afternoon. So between then and bed time, she would find time to hit balls with her dad who worked in the tennis federation.
She, like every other tennis player in Spain, grew up idolizing 14-time Grand Slam singles champion Rafael Nadal. She was certain she wanted to be like him. One thing she was not certain of though was coming to the United States to play collegiate tennis.
“My dad was asking me about going to the United States,” said Alexandra, better known as Ale (pronounced ah-LAY). “You can play tennis and study because in Spain you have to choose. I thought it was a good idea, but I was scared to come because of my English. Then everyone was coming here so I thought it was a good idea.”
One day, Alexandra, who was ranked as high as No. 34 in the Spain national rankings, was on Facebook and she started getting countless messages from college coaches wanting her to come play for them. One of those people was Louisiana Tech women’s tennis head coach Freddy Gomez who quickly developed a strong relationship with her with his ability to speak Spanish.
Without knowing much English, without knowing much about Ruston or LA Tech, without knowing anyone besides her new coach, she was about to embark solo to the great unknown.
Traveling alone was the easiest part, having already done so to places like France, Portugal and Italy.
The hardest part hit as soon as she got to the university because the very next day she had class.
“I didn’t even have orientation,” Alexandra laughed. “You could see me with a map of Louisiana Tech not knowing where my class was. In the beginning, I didn’t understand anything; I didn’t know what to do. Then I came to study hall and they had tutors. Sign me up for 24/7. It was funny in the beginning because you just had to go with the flow.”
The first month was extremely rough and scary, especially business class. But like everything else in her life, she fought and adapted.
That was clearly evident in her first collegiate match a couple of weeks after arriving. Without even knowing how collegiate tennis is scored, she suddenly found herself as the last match on court with the team match on the line.
The Lady Techsters were playing the Northwestern State Lady Demons in Natchitoches. LA Tech had previously lost lopsided matches to NSU by scores of 7-0, 7-0 and 6-1, but Alexandra helped put an end to that trend. She ended up clinching the team victory with a grueling 6-2, 5-7, 7-5 singles win.
That was the beginning of four years of tennis dominance.
She finished her playing career as the only Lady Techster to ever be a four-time first team all-conference selection. In the process, she played primarily from the No. 1 position and registered an overall dual record of 49-19 in singles.
The 49 wins are tied for the third-most in program history while the winning percentage of 72 currently ranks third as well. She also posted 35 career dual doubles victories, ranking seventh all-time.
She poured so much work and passion into it that she was teary-eyed when news broke her senior year that the program became nationally ranked for the first time ever.
As vicious and overpowering as her groundstrokes were, there were plenty of hardships on and off the court during this time as well.
First off, Alexandra hated losing. And hate probably wasn’t strong enough a word.
There was also that moment at the end of her freshman season when coach Gomez left, paving the way for new head coach Chad Camper to come in and take over.
“It was tough for me when Freddy left because he was the one who recruited me,” Alexandra said. “He did a lot for me. I was thinking about transferring. But I thought, ‘You know what, there was nowhere else I wanted to be.’ The team, we became a family. It was just another challenge for me. That’s how I am. I never give up on things.”
There was the time at the 2014 C-USA Tournament in Norfolk, Virginia, when she was playing at No. 1 and found herself down a set and on the ropes throughout the second set.
She broke down 5-4 and 6-5, and then overcame a match point in the tiebreaker to win the second set and then cruised in the third set to gut out the win.
This match was one of many that coach Camper remembered that made Alexandra the super competitor that she is.
“No matter how good or bad she was playing, she fought to the very end,” Camper remembered. “I remember her senior year we were in a battle at SMU. I was five courts away and when she won her singles match she screamed so loud it was as if she was right next to me. The opposing team’s coach said to me, ‘I wish my player wanted it that bad.’
“I can’t count how many times she would be down and she would just battle back with all guts and heart and win the match. Players like her don’t come around every day. I remember realizing how lucky and blessed I was to coach her and also to be a part of her life. I don’t think I will ever stop missing seeing her play.”
Alexandra’s very last match as a Lady Techster really exemplified who she was.
It was at the C-USA Tournament in the quarterfinals against North Texas. She was playing No. 1 in singles as normal. Then all of a sudden she’s laying on the court in agony. Her left shoulder got out of socket, but she popped it back in herself and kept playing.
It was classic Alexandra.
“I am not that kind of person that whenever you are hurt, you want to quit,” Alexandra said. “I hate retiring. I was hurting and could barely hold the racquet, but I kept pushing. I get that from my dad. He came by himself with zero money to Spain. I think that is why he is all the time telling me to stand up and keep going.
“Life is tough. I keep pushing, even if I am not doing good in school or whatever. I have to figure out something. I am the same in tennis.”
LA Tech lost that team match, but Alexandra didn’t lose hers. In fact, she was one point away from sending her match into a third set when it was stopped.
Her illustrious career may have ended that day, but her impact continues to be felt within the program.
“Personally, she really helped me be more competitive,” senior Jazmin Britos said. “During practice, we played against each other a lot and I really wanted to beat her. I knew if I could beat her, I could beat a lot of people. That really helped me improve my game. The team was really lucky to have her. She really deserved to break records at Tech.”
New head coach Amanda Stone was not around to see the many accomplishments Alexandra made as a player, but she senses it with her now being a student assistant coach with the team.
“Alexandra continues to be a great asset to LA Tech Tennis,” Stone said. “As a coach, she has proved to be tough and motivating. She has a great strength in seeing strategy on court and our players have really benefited with her involvement in practices and matches. I really appreciate and value her take on anything regarding the team. She’s certainly helped the transition for me as a new coach.”
With graduation looming and her plans to pursue being a tennis coach in the near future, Alexandra still doesn’t want to think about the past simply because she wants so bad to be back on the court playing.
“It is hard not being on the court,” Alexandra confessed. “Time flies. I am going to miss it. Maybe I was one of the best players who came to Louisiana Tech. I am pretty happy with that.”
There is no maybe to it. She was one of, if not the, greatest.