Spanish teacher once played in world tennis tournaments

Helena Besovic once was a tennis star herself for Bosnia and played in the Fed Cup.

She picked up her first racket when she was 9.

“I played all kind of sports because my mom was a physical education professor, but when I tried tennis, I knew it was the perfect sport,” said Helena Besovic, a former Missouri tennis coach who currently teaches in the MU Spanish department.

Besovic did not pick up tennis like most other players. She had limited opportunities because of the environment around her.

“Playing back home was not that easy because I picked up tennis right during the last year of the (Bosnian War),” Besovic said. “I remember we started playing on a basketball court when two coaches came together and decided to make a tennis club.”

After several years of improvement, Besovic accepted an offer that changed her life. She was the only person in her country to receive the opportunity.

“I got a scholarship to go to Spain to train and go to high school,” Besovic said. “That’s where I started playing professional tournaments.”

At 15, Besovic earned her first professional-level points. After earning enough points, she was selected to represent her country in the Fed Cup, the most significant women’s tournament between national teams in the world.

“(Playing the Fed Cup) was special because I got to play and also see some the top tennis players,” Besovic said. “I got to play against (Svetlana) Kuznetsova, and I remember beating a girl who was ranked 120th in the world.”

In addition to facing very successful players during her Fed Cup career, she also got to watch many talented players while participating in tournaments in Spain. Besovic enjoyed going to her academy and getting to watch current world No. 1 Rafael Nadal.

“(Nadal) played the same tournaments that I did so I would see him all the time,” Besovic said. “He was always the superstar. People back then had a feeling that he was going to be amazing.”

Besovic gained fame of her own when she became one of the top 500 players in the world and the highest ranked player in all of Bosnia. But she didn’t let the idea of being the best player in her country affect her game.

“I didn’t feel pressure because when I played tennis, I always felt like I was in my zone,” Besovic said. “Growing up, I wasn’t that outgoing, but when I played tennis and in competition, I felt the most comfortable.”

Besovic felt that the United States was her best option for college tennis. She played for Texas Christian University for four years and experienced a new outlook on her sport. Besovic had to adapt to TCU’s team-oriented style of tennis.

“In college was when I learned to be more of a team player,” Besovic said. “Singles was my main thing in college, but then in college, doubles became important because we were competing at a high level.”

Besovic helped TCU’s tennis program reach new heights. As one of the top players on the team, she led the group to three Mountain West conference titles.

The Bosnian received TCU’s prestigious Female Athlete of the Year award and was voted the Most Valuable Player of the tennis team at the conclusion of her final year at the university. Besovic wanted to remain involved in college tennis, so she decided to start coaching.

After completing a year of coaching at Penn State, Besovic decided she wanted to pursue a master’s degree at MU. The university was quick to offer her a coaching job in the women’s tennis program.

“I was the assistant coach for two years and became the interim head coach during my last year with the team,” Besovic said. “I made sure to improve their work ethics and have constructive practices that would prepare them for match play.”

Besovic coached Missouri’s tennis team to an 11-8 record as the interim head coach during the 2011 spring season. With her master’s degree complete, she decided to cut ties with the team to focus on her education and work toward a doctorate in Spanish literature.

“Coach Besovic helped me out a lot during my freshman year,” senior Rachel Stuhlmann said. “She made sure we worked hard every day, but the results paid off for our team.”

The former tennis professional is continuing her studies and teaches multiple levels of Spanish at MU. Although Besovic is a busy student and teacher, she continues to play the sport that shaped her life.

“(Besovic) is very fun and intelligent, and she works hard at improving her Spanish,” said Dario Cersosimo, a colleague in the Spanish department. “If I challenged her to a tennis match today, I would be embarrassed by her.”

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