Two hands covered her mouth. Decked out in blue with matching wristbands, a rising tennis star had just won her first professional tournament in Fort Worth, Texas back in August.
Freshman Maria Mateas could have skipped the college game without giving it much thought. She is currently ranked No. 302 in the world, jumping up about 400 spots in the past 16 months. She could have continued to raise her ranking while building up experience as a touring pro.
For much of her junior career, the plan was to do just that. Mateas began to discover the benefits of college only in the last few years.
Unlike basketball and football, there is no minimum college requirement to play professionally. Only a handful of tennis players, however, skip college to jumpstart their careers.
“If I would have been top 200, there’s a 90 percent chance I wouldn’t have come to school,” Mateas said. “But I started thinking about my future more, just in terms of injury and in terms of what I want to do after tennis and I decided that coming to school would be a good idea.”
A star in the making
Sophomore Kelly Chen knew Mateas before this fall, as the two played in similar tournaments, including Mateas’ first professional victory.
“[She’s] very professional on court,” Chen said of her teammate’s game. “She definitely has this mentality of being very determined.”
That professionalism is a vital skill that can take Mateas to the next level.
In July, she advanced to her first singles championship match but lost in straight sets in the finals. Mateas then went right back to work.
“I remember just taking every match one at a time and essentially it was my last tournament in my mind before coming to school,” Mateas said. “I was able to really keep it together mentally, which I think was the biggest part of the end result.”
Mateas played in Templeton, Calif., accompanied by Duke assistant coach Matt Manasse last month.
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“What struck me the most was just her professionalism in terms of how she prepared for every match,” Manasse said. “She’s very meticulous in every single detail. She’s up in the morning in the gym doing her routines. She’s stretching at the right times and really just getting focused for each and every match.”
In the first round, Mateas had match points, but didn’t convert, losing in three sets, despite striking the ball and controlling the court better than her 249th-ranked opponent.
“Maria was just so positive and kept fighting through the ups and downs,” Manasse said “That fight and grit is going to take her a long way.”
Mateas then stayed in California for her debut college event, defeating two top-16 players in straight sets en route to the finals, before losing to Gonzaga’s No. 35 Sophie Whittle.
‘My best friend’
Mateas has played tennis most of her life. Born into an athletic family in Romania, she immigrated to the United States when she was a young child. After a short stay in New Jersey and an extended one in Braintree, Mass., Mateas and her family moved to Chapel Hill last March.
Although she started to play at six, she took tennis more seriously thanks to her father, a tennis pro, and her mother, a fitness coach, when she turned nine.
As Mateas explained, home is where her parents and brother, Catalin, are—not the physical location. Traveling often and taking classes online throughout high school, she never spent much time at the house, making it difficult to develop friendships.
“My best friend through all of this was probably my brother because he definitely understood it and knew what I was going through,” Mateas said.
Catalin, now a former member of the Blue Devil men’s tennis team, influenced her decision to come to Duke. The program’s prestige, however, would have made for an attractive place even without her brother, Mateas explained.
Although her talent could have landed her almost anywhere, Blue Devil head coach Jamie Ashworth said that she was upfront with other schools about her commitment to Duke.
Ashworth and Manasse, with their experience coaching top-tier players, are in a prime position to guide Mateas in her rise to the top before she makes the jump professionally for good.
As a freshman, Mateas does not have a preseason singles ranking, but she is ranked first among college players according to her Universal Tennis Rating, a computer ranking powered by Oracle that also puts her 296th in the world.
With a finals appearance under her belt, Mateas says she is playing for more than just an NCAA title.
“Improvement is just being better than I was yesterday because then I will be better than I am today,” Mateas said.
The freshman said her serve can be “dangerous” but Mateas’ self-proclaimed best shot is her forehand, which she can get some pace behind. Confidence in her backhand compliments her other strokes.
“She’s your prototypical professional player in terms of her frame,” Manasse said. “She’s 5-11 [and] hits an unbelievable solid groundstroke on both sides flat through the court.”
‘Best of both worlds’
Although it may seem that Mateas took a risk, she is continuing to play professionally.
As long as she plays all of the professional tournaments as an amateur, Ashworth said before the season that she is allowed to play and earn points in WTA tournaments.
“I get the best of both worlds with this. It was a win-win for me. I really wouldn’t have chosen differently,” Mateas said. “Now that I look back on it, I’m very, very happy with the decision I made.”
Since Mateas started school this past August, her ranking has only dropped 16 spots while she played in six tournaments. The freshman reached the semifinals of a professional tournament last month in Florence, S.C., where she knocked out the second seed and then-No. 219 as well as Texas’ ITA top-ranked Bianca Turati, 6-4, 6-4.
“Girls are peaking later nowadays at 25, 26, so I’m not putting pressure on myself like I have to be top 100 by the end of next year,” Mateas said. “Long term, top 10 would be where I’d like to be.”
That goal is something that she will work on this fall and spring at Duke.
“She definitely has the potential…. But I don’t think she’s there at this moment,” Ashworth said. “The number of matches that we play in college will help.”
She has already made an immediate impact, but progress is what matters most.
College has helped other players, including former Virginia standout Danielle Collins, Stanford alum Nicole Gibbs and ex-Tar Heel Jamie Loeb. Collins made a splash professionally last year and is currently ranked No. 35. And the three combined resulted in five consecutive NCAA individual singles titles from 2012-16.
Collins, Gibbs and Loeb each took different paths to the professional game while they spent four, three and two years in college, respectively.
Whether she stays all four years or just for one, Mateas will use college as a catalyst for future success on the professional circuit.
“I have a plan in my head, but I definitely want to take it one day at a time and just see what is right for me at the end of the year,” Mateas said.