Maria Kononova was convinced she was meant to play for North Texas a few years ago, even though she had never set foot on campus.
Kononova's coach back home in Ufa, Russia, knew UNT coach Sujay Lama and thought the school would be a perfect fit. So did Kamilla Galieva, one of Kononova's friends from her hometown who played for the Mean Green.
There was just one problem. Lama wasn't certain Kononova was talented enough to play for him.
Kononova sent e-mail after e-mail — not to mention messages on Facebook — to Lama only to have most go unreturned.
The athletic blonde with the well-rounded game didn't know it then, but she was Option B when it came to Lama's plans to build UNT's roster.
A little more than two years later, the sophomore is a critical part of UNT's plan to capitalize on a grand opportunity this week when it hosts the Conference USA tournament. The Mean Green are the No. 5 seed and will take on No. 12 Middle Tennessee at noon Thursday in an opening-round match at the Waranch Tennis Complex.
The winner of the 14-team event receives an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
"There is no doubt we have a good chance to make a run," Lama said. "Everything we do all year is geared around making a run in April.
"I feel good about where we are at."
Kononova is a big reason that is the case. She is 16-4 at No. 1 singles — the most wins for a player at the top spot in program history. She enters the C-USA tournament ranked No. 76 in singles nationally.
Kononova is a perfect 15-0 with Tamuna Kutubidze at No. 1 doubles. They are the first UNT doubles team to finish the regular season undefeated with more than six matches played.
There is little doubt Kononova is one of the best players in C-USA after her meteoric rise over the last few months. Those involved with UNT's program attribute Kononova's breakout year to her drive to succeed.
The results that will to win has brought Kononova are impressive.
Kononova knocked off Oklahoma's Lily Miyazaki, who was No. 16 at the time, by an impressive 6-2, 6-4 score. No one in the history of UNT's program has beaten a player ranked higher in singles.
She also took out Anastasia Rychagova, another Russian and Kansas' top player. Rychagova was No. 74 when Kononova beat her 5-7, 6-3, 7-5 last month.
"She is super calm and leads by example," Kutubidze said. "If she loses, she tries to learn from it. She is very serious about her career, especially this year after seeing that she can beat top-20 players. That has motivated her."
Miyazaki drubbed Kononova 6-2, 6-2 last season before a transformation Lama and UNT's players didn't see coming. Only Kononova had a suspicion she was ready to take off — largely because of the comfort level she had found at UNT.
"I knew what was coming this year," Kononova said. "Last year it was new for me, how everything works. I was excited heading into the season about the schedule and who I would be playing. I wanted to be better than I was last year."
Plain old desire is a theme when it comes to Kononova's story. It's how she got to UNT in the first place.
Landing at UNT
Like most successful college programs, Lama has built UNT's roster by signing the best foreign players he can find.
The Mean Green have players from China, Colombia and Georgia — the nation in Eastern Europe, not the state in Southeastern Conference country.
Lama was aware of Kononova. He just wasn't sure if she was the best player he could add to UNT's roster.
The players Lama typically is after have pedigree from playing in international events. Kononova had a far less impressive tennis resume.
"Maria was so under the radar," Lama said. "She played very few international tournaments. She contacted me because her coach knew me."
That wasn't enough to convince Lama to give Kononova a scholarship, especially not when he had a chance to land Sophia Chow. The Brazilian was ranked as high as No. 27 in her country as a junior and was considering signing with the Mean Green.
Chow signed with San Diego, which sent Lama scrambling. He decided to take a longer look at Kononova.
"It was a chance because she didn't have great international results, but she was an athlete with all the shots, moved well, was tall and a big hitter," Lama said. "I called her coach and asked for an honest assessment. He told me that she is really good and that if I gave her time she would play top 500 [Women's Tennis Association] level tennis in a couple of years. It was the feel and his word that I had to look at."
Lama made up his mind just in time.
With UNT seemingly out of the picture, Kononova was searching for somewhere else to land.
"Louisiana Tech wanted to sign me," Kononova said. "I had a Skype call and a longer conversation with their coach. I asked him to give me a chance to think. Coach Lama finally texted me back just before I had to decide. My coach back home told me that if I wanted to develop as a person and a player, coach Lama was someone he trusts. I decided to come."
Lama attributes landing Kononova to plain old luck.
Shortly after she signed with UNT, Kononova entered a professional tournament with a $10,000 purse. She made a run to the quarterfinals and beat Anastasia Rudakova, who was No. 438 on the WTA Tour at the time, 6-4, 6-3.
That was the type of result Kononova's resume lacked when she was struggling to attract the attention of top American college coaches.
"Coach Lama was more excited to get me after that," Kononova said.
Growing at UNT
Kononova made an immediate impact at UNT. She moved to the top of the singles lineup and finished 8-11 as a freshman.
Kononova has only grown since, thanks to the time and effort she puts into the game.
Lama recalled receiving a text message from Kononova recently on a day UNT players had off. The message included a photo of Kononova jogging and a note: "This is how we finish."
"What makes her special is that there is no doubt she wants to play pro tennis," Lama said. "It's not like 'I hope I can play pro' or will try. She wants to be a pro. That helps her be so focused. She is diligent and goes the extra mile."
Kononova can't imagine doing anything less, even though she knows it will be a challenge to carve out a pro career.
"I love to play tennis and have already played girls on the tour," Kononova said. "They are not that far away. I want to give it a try. If I don't, I will regret it."
Kononova has made her mark at UNT while helping to elevate the tennis program. The Mean Green have gradually become more competitive since joining C-USA.
This will be UNT's fourth conference tournament since joining the league. The Mean Green broke through for their first NCAA bid in 2010 under Lama by winning the Sun Belt tournament in his fourth season.
UNT is hoping its fourth year in C-USA will be a magical one as well.
Kononova will be a big part of UNT's plans to reach that goal, which is an interesting twist of fate considering she was a backup plan as a recruit.
"I have been doing this 22 years, and recruiting is bizarre," Lama said. "Sometimes you have some luck.
"Maria is such a low-maintenance girl who goes about her business. It's been a blessing to have her."
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.
C-USA tennis tourney pairings
The following are the first-round matchups for the Conference USA tennis tournament that begins today and runs through Sunday at the Waranch Tennis Complex. No. 1 seed Rice and No. 2 seed Florida International both have first-round byes:
9 a.m. -- No. 8 Southern Miss vs. No. 9 Texas-San Antonio
9 a.m. -- No. 7 Charlotte vs. No. 10 Louisiana Tech
Noon -- No. 5 North Texas vs. No. 12 Middle Tennessee
Noon -- No. 3 Marshall vs. No. 14 UTEP
3 p.m. -- No. 4 Old Dominion vs. No. 13 UAB
3 p.m. -- No. 6: Western Kentucky vs. No. 11 Florida Atlantic