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Newcomer challenging 'Cats' No. 1

By STEVE LEE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 3, 2002

WESLEY CHAPEL -- Cristina Lucin has been her team's ace since her freshman year at Land O'Lakes and for two seasons at Wesley Chapel.

Now, the two-time Sunshine Athletic Conference Player of the Year and three-time state qualifier faces some stiff competition in new teammate Martina Haluskova, a junior from Slovakia.

"I remember saying a few years ago, "Wouldn't it be nice to have a foreign exchange student who's really good,' " Lucin said.

"For the most part, Martina and Cristina are pretty even," first-year Wesley Chapel coach Julie Marks said. "It's kind of good for Cristina, because they hit the ball hard at each other. They really give each other what they need at practice."

Lucin, a senior who has defeated the area's top players in recent years, welcomes the challenge.

"We're pretty close skill-wise," Lucin said. "It's good to have her in practice; somebody on my level.

"I think she's going to help me get my game on early. I think by the end of the season I'll be in tip-top shape."

Marks feels Haluskova will be better by then as well, especially since the 16-year-old will need time to adjust to the warmer weather in Florida and playing on concrete rather than the clay courts that are predominant in her native land.

"She's got a real good serve and she can move pretty quick on the court," Marks said.

As a 9-year-old, Haluskova, who began playing tennis at the age of 7, won a national championship in her country. She arrived at the Tullys' Saddlebrook home Jan. 18 as part of an international foreign exchange program.

Dave Tully said the young tennis player's stay in Saddlebrook is coincidental and that Haluskova intended to play in the public school system rather than at the prestigious golf and tennis resort.

Lisa Tully, who last year played tennis for Wesley Chapel but this season opted to focus solely on that school's girls weightlifting team, introduced Haluskova to Lucin.

"(Lucin is) nice," Haluskova said. "She's a good tennis player and a good friend."

Lucin, who, despite her success does not eat, sleep and breathe tennis, has repeatedly said she plays the sport for fun. Lucin added that her new teammate shares that outlook.

"Sometimes I like (tennis), sometimes no," Haluskova said.

At 5-foot-9, Haluskova's athletic activities have not been confined to the tennis courts. Dave Tully said she sometimes plays basketball with the boys in the neighborhood.

"She's my kind of person," Lucin said. "She doesn't have her head up in the clouds."

While Lucin and Haluskova battle it out for No. 1 singles, Marks plans to separate them when it comes to doubles, but they could be paired for the playoffs.

"Our goal is to win as a team," Marks said, "and we really want both of our doubles teams to win every time."

Marks said the team has embraced Haluskova since the first day of practice.

"They're talking," the coach said. "They're having a good time. They're really forming a team unity."

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