Unforced error reaps rewards for Padegimaite, Women's Tennis
May 17, 2012
Travis Feldhaus, Texas Media Relations
Eight-year-old Lina Padegimaite (pah-day-gee-MY-tay) took interest in a sport that befits athletes with a cat-like quickness and sharp reflexes. The game featured a court with a wide, horizontal net, tightly-strung racquets and an objective to fling an object over the net, in bounds and out of your opponent’s reach.
It was perfect. The only problem was she had the wrong sport in mind, or simply the wrong name of the sport. What the rest of the world labeled as badminton, Padegimaite called tennis.
“I wanted to play badminton so badly, but at the time, I thought badminton was actually called tennis,” Padegimaite recalls. “I asked my parents if they would let me play tennis, and they didn’t know I meant badminton. So, they took me to what I soon found out was a tennis court and we started hitting.”
The rest is history.
Padegimaite’s homeland of Lithuania, a former Soviet republic about the size of West Virginia, spawns as many basketball players as Texas does oil wells. Lina credits her parents, Zilvinas (father) and Laima, a pair of former basketball players themselves, for her lean and powerful frame that stands nearly six-feet tall. But rather than persuade Lina to pursue basketball as a hobby, they encouraged her to pursue the sport that suited her best.
“They picked up tennis when I started playing, and they supported me when I had my ups and downs,” Padegimaite said. “They pushed me but they made sure I knew there was more to life than tennis and other sports.”
Padegimaite dabbled in other sports like soccer, basketball and even karate, but they all got in the way of a sport she encountered almost by accident. And what Lithuania lacked in indoor tennis facilities, it made up for with basketball courts – which the resourceful Padegimaite would convert into makeshift tennis courts. The hardwood of the basketball court became a hard tennis court.
For Padegimaite, the ideal complement to a pursuit of tennis excellence came in the form of college tennis. She knew by her junior year of high school she wanted to play college tennis in the United States. Padegimaite represented her home country at the 2010 European Championships in Switzerland and caught the eye of the Texas coaching staff.
“Lina was blessed with a great tennis body,” UT head coach Patty Fendick-McCain said. “She’s got height, strength and speed. She has a huge serve, very good volleys and she moves forward and attacks well.”
Padegimaite took an official visit to the UT campus in the fall of 2010 and was taken aback by what she saw.
“I thought, ‘Well, I’m coming to Texas and it’ll be hot and there won’t be any trees,’” Padegimaite said. “I had a different vision and I was surprised by how nice it was. I told my parents there was no doubt I had to come here. I knew how well UT took care of its student-athletes, and it has such strong academics. UT and Austin are so diverse, so I knew I would be fine here.”
Padegimaite made the move to Texas but had to miss most of the fall season due to a stress reaction in her left femur (thigh bone). An aggravation of the largest bone in the human body would cause discomfort for just about anyone and certainly for an athlete who depends on her legs to sprint and change directions on a tennis court.
“It was something I had to take seriously, and I appreciated my coaches letting me rest and heal,” Padegimaite said. “I was able to play one singles match and a few doubles matches in the fall, but the time I had to sit out was the biggest gap of inactivity in my tennis career. It was disappointing because I wanted to come in and perform.”
A rejuvenated Padegimaite made an impact right away when Texas opened its dual-match season in New York City against North Carolina. In just her second career singles match as a Longhorn, Padegimaite defeated UNC’s Gina Suarez-Malaguti in straight sets to help Texas to a 4-3 win over the third-ranked Tar Heels.
She won three of her next four matches, and on March 14, Padegimaite commenced a 15-match winning streak that produced a perfect 9-0 mark in conference play. As a result, Padegimaite was selected as the Big 12 Freshman of the Year and was named the Big 12 champion at No. 5 singles. She also earned All-Big 12 doubles honors alongside classmate Noel Scott.
The accolades were nice, but Padegimaite prefers team success over individual glory. The Lithuanian National Team invited Padegimaite to represent her homeland at the Fed Cup this spring, but she declined the opportunity given that she had other business to attend to.
“I was disappointed that the timing didn’t work out, but I realized I’m part of another great team here,” Padegimaite said. “I am a Longhorn now. I have responsibilities here and I was not going to leave in the middle of the season. The team part of college tennis is the best thing about it. You practice together and you’re always around each other. You’re not doing something just for yourself; it’s something more important than that.”
“She’s the quintessential team player, in my opinion,” Fendick-McCain added. “She came in and played low in the singles lineup initially, but you never heard a peep out of her. Her complete focus and mission was to put points on the board for us. She understands that it doesn’t matter whether you’re playing at No. 6 or at No. 1.”
Padegimaite’s success has been one of many keys toward the Longhorns’ good fortunes this season. Texas claimed its first Big 12 Championship since 2005 on the strength of a lineup featuring four freshmen and sophomores, including two additional Big 12 singles champions in sophomores Cierra Gaytan-Leach and Elizabeth Begley.
With a 21-4 dual-match singles record in tow, Padegimaite awaits the next challenge in the form of sixth-seeded Georgia, whom the Horns will meet on the Bulldogs’ home courts on Thursday.
“I feel confident on the court right now. I have faith in my team, and they have faith in me, which is important. I could not prove myself in the fall, and it feels great to add wins for the team now. I come out and play every match and point without thinking about the future or the past.”