Junior newcomer Marina Cozac has already netted five singles wins and six doubles wins for the Huskers in invitational play this fall.
Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

World Traveler Cozac Pursuing Passions in Lincoln

By Rachel Long

When Marina Cozac was 5 years old, her grandfather, George, opened up a book about tennis. Despite a background in boxing, he decided he would use the book to teach his granddaughter to play.

By the time she was 5, Cozac had already tried out swimming, basketball, soccer, gymnastics, ice skating and cheerleading. At the end of the final football game she cheered for, Marina walked over to her mom and declared she was done with the sport.

“I want to be on the court where the action is,” she said.

Weeks later, her grandfather was looking up the dimensions of a tennis court.

Growing up in a big house in the suburb of Plano, Texas, right outside of Dallas, a multitude of soccer fields composed Cozac’s family’s front yard. On one sunny day, George and Marina ventured out to one of the soccer fields with loads of yarn and two metal poles. George measured the tennis court dimensions with his feet, set the yarn down to mimic the lines of the court, stuck two poles in the ground in the middle and tied the string across to mimic the net. Marina had her own personal tennis court.

Her first tennis practices involved her grandfather tossing her balls from across the faux net, creating a love for tennis in Cozac from the first time she hit a tennis ball. Out on the soccer field, she often hit a ball over the net just to see it strike a pothole and head in any which way. This distraction gradually taught the young player to stay focused on the next ball coming and to always stay on her toes.

After a year of these practices, Marina and George moved their work to tennis courts at a local high school.

Tennis stayed intertwined in Cozac’s life from that point on. When high school was approaching, Cozac decided an online academic program through Indiana University High School was the right option for her, so she could continue her education while traveling the world and competing.

When she was 14, her world traveling ignited.

At a WTA tournament in Dallas in 2011, Cozac was watching a professional tennis tournament involving Irina Begu, a player from Romania. Cheering loudly for Begu in the stands, Cozac attracted the attention of Begu’s coach, who invited her to train with him in Europe. The following summer, Cozac’s family moved to Chicago for new job opportunities, and the young star, with her grandfather by her side, moved to Romania as she began her two-year-long tennis adventure more than 5,000 miles from home.

“I found practicing and playing in Romania very different from how it is done in the U.S.,” Cozac said. “Practices are extremely intense and lasted much longer. We played on red clay courts so by the end of practice, each day, I was covered in clay up to my knees. In Romania, I did not have a car, so every day I had to take two buses and walk 30 minutes to get to practice. But on the other hand, the food was amazing and extremely fresh. it was fascinating for me to see that every neighborhood in the city had a farmer’s market every single day of the week. So the whole time I was there, I ate fresh fruits and vegetables every day, I remember buying buckets of sour cherries, raspberries, blueberries, peaches, apricots and struggling to carry them home. I loved my time in Romania. It was great to live in a different country and experience its culture. There, I learned to work hard and to enjoy every day.”

When Cozac returned home at age 16, she had graduated from her high school program and was planning to compete in the professional tennis league before pursuing her undergraduate degree in mathematics. At this time, her mother, Marina Girju, was teaching marketing analytics at DePaul University, and new NCAA rules were established requiring college athletes to commit to a university months after graduating. Cozac consequently enrolled at DePaul University to stay near her mom and family in Chicago, and postponed her dreams of professional tennis until after graduation.

Cozac quickly became a strong force for the Blue Demons, posting a 34-19 record her freshman year and competing out of the No. 2 and No. 3 spots for singles. After she turned 18 in her sophomore year of college, the Feb. 3, 2016 BIG EAST Women’s Tennis Athlete of the Week decided she was old enough and ready for a larger challenge, and she began her search for the right school to transfer to. Nebraska immediately came into her line of sight.

“I grew up in Texas in a suburb near Dallas and I love living in small cities,” Cozac said. “So, when I came for my visit, I fell in love with Lincoln; small but modern and chic, with smiling people and lots of culture. The school has one of the best tennis programs in the country, and it’s part of the Big Ten Conference, so playing at this level is the best I could wish for. The university is also a research school, so even though I am only an undergrad, I have the opportunity to work on research projects with faculty. Lastly, Lincoln is only a seven-hour drive from Chicago, or a 10-hour train ride or one-hour plane ride. This is all good for a quick trip home or for my family to visit me.

“At first, the transition was difficult for me because I was away from my family for the first time in my life. I constantly miss my family, but the people here, such as my teammates, coaches, and roommates, have created such a strong support system for me. I am truly thriving here. Now after being in Nebraska for just six months, the truth is that I love everything about Nebraska, and I am so sad that I am only here for two years when I could have been here for three or four.”

Outside of tennis, Cozac also possesses an intense passion for mathematics and statistics. Last summer, the 4.0 student landed a competitive internship working in data analytics and category management. Cozac said this experience will contribute to her future career in business and marketing analytics, an area she also seeks to pursue a PhD in.

“Math was always my strongest subject in school, so I knew that I wanted to continue to study it in college,” Cozac said. “I also fell in love with statistics. My mom is a data analytics professor, and during my senior year of high school, she told me about statistics and how important it is. I fell in love with it even more in my statistics classes, and during my internship this past summer. I love how the data always tells a story and I love that I have to be the one who discovers and shares it.”

Cozac said her upcoming summer will include studying for the Graduate Management Admissions Test, as well as tennis training and playing in competitive tournaments. But as for right now, the newfound Husker is eager to compete in her first season for Nebraska, and to help reach team goals of making it to the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments.

Head Coach Scott Jacobson said he is convinced Cozac will be a strong contributor for the Big Red.

“Cozac had some impressive wins for a very strong DePaul program,” Jacobson said. “We believe Marina is going to set the standard for work ethic at Nebraska. Not only has she proven to be a phenomenal player, Marina is also a phenomenal person. She has a tremendous heart, tremendous passion, a tremendous love for the game and is a great competitor. We are expecting great things from Marina over the course of the next two years here at Nebraska.”

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