Inspired by Kournikova, student from Spain is FIU’s top singles tennis player

Andrea Lazaro’s socks were stained red.

A native of Barcelona, Spain, Lazaro made her collegiate debut in the fall of 2015, playing tennis for Florida International University. She had to sit out her first season due to an eligibility issue, and once she got on the court, her confidence was as shaky as an old kitchen table.

“She had bloody legs from blisters,” FIU coach Katarina Petrovic recalled. “She was so tight, not light on her feet (which caused the blisters). I’ve never seen someone so nervous.”

Lazaro is now the top singles player on an FIU team that is having a dream season with a 19-1 record and 17 consecutive wins heading into the Conference USA championships, which begin Thursday and run through Sunday in Denton, Texas.

But last fall, consumed by nerves, she had lost her first 10 matches during the fall, which serves, in essence, as an exhibition season for the spring.

“During my first tournament (at FIU),” Lazaro said, “I was so tense, I couldn’t even hit the ball. It had been two years since I played (a competitive match).

“I was thinking my coaches were going to send me back (to Spain, saying), ‘This is not what we expected’.”

As bad as that experience was, the previous year had been worse — when the NCAA wouldn’t let her play, only practice. “I wanted to leave (the U.S.),” Lazaro said. “I was here alone. My English was so bad.”

Lazaro said her coaches and parents convinced her to stay.

“My coaches helped me a lot — they talked to me every day,” she said. “I cried a lot. I expressed myself.

“My parents said, ‘Andrea, don’t be stupid. This is a great opportunity for you.’ And I said, ‘OK, I am strong.’”

She is now.

Petrovic remembers a match in fall 2015 when Lazaro was one point away from yet another loss. Petrovic told her, “How about you play for yourself?”

Lazaro took the advice and won the match 7-5, 6-3.

In spring 2016 — her redshirt freshman season — she went 24-9, finishing third on her team in wins, earning second-team All-Conference USA honors. She was also 19-10 in doubles.

This spring, she is 20-4 in singles and 20-3 in doubles. She plays No. 1 singles, facing the best player on every team FIU schedules.

“Andrea can beat any player in the country, but she has to be more mature, and that’s what we’re working on,” Petrovic said. “She can be a top-10 player in the NCAA. But she’s not there yet. She has room for improvement.“

Lazaro, though, has come a long way since she first picked up a racquet at age 5. She was inspired to do so by her father, Jose, who used to read her bedtime stories about tennis star Anna Kournikova.

After that, Lazaro asked her dad to “let me try this,” playing tennis once a week at first and then getting hooked on the sport.

She’s a huge Barcelona soccer fan — “muerte,” she says, meaning she’s a Barca diehard — and she owns a Neymar jersey from her favorite team.

Even so, she made the decision to leave her family, her city and her soccer team behind so she could pursue tennis in the U.S.

Lazaro had never been to the U.S., but she had dreamed of Miami. She took a recruiting trip to FIU in March 2014. It was perfect timing — she went to watch tennis at the Miami Open as part of her trip — and she ended up committing to FIU.

With a 3.0 grade-point average, Lazaro, 22, is now on pace to earn her bachelor’s degree by May 2018. She is majoring in recreation and sports management, with a minor in marketing.

On the court, Lazaro’s best shot is her forehand. But she has learned to pick her spots, guarding against her tendency to go for a winner every time.

As for a secret weapon, that’s easy: it’s her gold necklace with a tennis-racquet pendant. It was gifted to Lazaro 10 years ago by her parents, and now it’s always around her neck.

“I cannot play without it,” Lazaro said. “The chain has broken three times, but I just buy a new one.”

After all, that necklace has been through a lot with Lazaro — from bloody blisters to scintillating success — and a promise of more accomplishments yet to come.