Eliza Askarova was working on her serve and backhand recently at the Northeast Racquet Club with three other players, all boys. At one point, Askarova got flustered as one of her shots landed out of bounds. So the instructor checked her form, and she resumed. On her next serve, the George Washington senior hit the ball so hard that her opponent just laughed. He knew he couldn't get to it.
Overcoming obstacles and getting back on track are nothing new for Askarova. A native of Kyrgyzstan, a nation in central Asia that borders the western edge of China, Askarova didn't expect to be a high school tennis star. She didn't even know that Washington had a tennis team when she enrolled in the school four years ago.
Askarova reached the PIAA Class 3A state semifinals for the third time this month, when she was eliminated by North Penn's Neha Velaga, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3. She had been in the state finals the previous two years, falling to Norwin's Maria Santilli in 2016 and to North Allegheny's Ashley Huang in 2017.
This year, Askarova won her third straight Public League and District 12 championships, and she has committed to continue her career at the University of Delaware.
"The strongest part of her game is her serve because it puts her opponents on defense right away," said Washington coach Ann Tunney. "She's very unassuming, which also catches people off guard."
The transition to life in the United States and Philadelphia was not always as smooth for Askarova as her serve has become.
"It was a culture shock," she said. "Different place. Different people. Different cultures. … My first year I wanted to go back home all the time. Now … I love it. My mom will ask me when I want to go back, and I always want to stay here and be with my friends."
Tennis has long been a part of Askarova's life, but it was never as intense as it is now. Her parents got her into U.S. Tennis Association youth tournaments to keep her involved when they first arrived in Philadelphia. She said she had no idea that U.S. high schools and colleges also had tennis programs.
"It's not like that in my country," she said. "My parents felt like there were better opportunities here. I went to a tennis school over there. We would play tennis and have regular classes in between."
After she enrolled at Washington, Askarova was discovered by Tunney and welcomed onto the school's team.
"She was in my geometry class her ninth-grade year," Tunney said. "I didn't know she played tennis until one of her friends came up to me and told me after the season."
Ranked No. 1 in Pennsylvania, 18th in the Middle Atlantic region and 68th in the country by Tennis Recruiting Network, Askarova, a right-handed hitter, said she doesn't watch much tennis when she isn't playing. "I don't know why," she said. "I can watch some important matches. But I'd rather watch movies and TV shows."
After last year's state final, Huang called Askarova "a very tough opponent. She is a very good player with a good serve and a solid baseline."
Although she did not win a state championship, Askarova leaves Washington with an impressive legacy. Tunney said she was most impressed by the increased variety of Askarova's game.
For this season, Tunney said, "She has lost weight and gotten into the best shape since being here while showing a drop shot and an improved slice shot on the baseline."
Still, Askarova said she is nervous about moving on to the college game.
"I wonder if I'll be able to keep up sometimes," she said.