The "Senior Spotlight" series is a collection of stories of Columbia's senior student-athletes in their final semester as Lions. Originally published in Lions Den, below is a profile on Columbia women's tennis's senior co-captains, Natalia Christenson '11BC and Natasha Makarova '11CC.
When you walk into the Dick Savitt Tennis Center on any given day, you’ll see two women hitting in Columbia Blue. They’re slender, graceful, always laughing and always together. But appearances can be deceiving, because behind those smiles and polite demeanors, senior co-captains Natalia Christenson '11BC and Natasha Makarova '11CC are the catalysts behind Columbia women’s tennis. And they are a major reason the women’s tennis program is poised to break through in the Ivy League.
The pair, one of whom is rarely seen without the other, are actually as different as two best friends could be. Natalia is enrolled in Barnard College, studying economics. Natasha is enrolled in Columbia College, a biological sciences major. Natalia is blond, outgoing and from New Jersery. Natasha has brown hair, tends to be shy at ﬁrst, and grew up in California. And if you ask them, they can point to even more things that make them different, including the way they lead the team. But it’s those differences that make them work.
Almost everyone at Columbia and Barnard knows Natalia Christenson. At least, it seems that way. Natalia spent her sophomore and junior years as the president of Columbia’s Student Athletic Advisory Committee, and for the past two years she’s done it on a national level, as she was appointed to the NCAA Division I Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) as the Ivy League representative.
"Being named to the NCAA SAAC was one of the most special parts of college for me," Natalia said. "Coming from a conference that is very different from all of the other conferences in Division I, it’s been an amazing opportunity to see what the student-athlete experience is like in other parts of the country."
But even with having the chance to compare her experience to student-athletes in the SEC and other BCS conferences, Natalia wouldn’t trade her decision to come to Barnard for anything.
"Playing Division I tennis at an Ivy League school was my goal and dream," Natalia said.
It didn’t come easily for her. Natalia didn’t even pick up a tennis racquet until she was 12, practically middle-aged in the junior tennis world. She didn’t enter a tournament until she was 14. And if anything, her parents were hesitant to encourage her new love. Academics came ﬁrst in the Christenson household. But Natalia was good. Good enough to start to realize that if she worked just a little bit harder, her dream could be a reality.
"My parents decided that they would give me a year after I graduated high school to play and compete in tournaments and train hard to see what I could do," Natalia said. "And I moved down to Austin, Texas for a year after graduation, played a lot, trained hard, and ultimately, was recruited here to Columbia, which was the best moment of my life."
And Natalia has payed that back to the Columbia community and her teammates, tenfold.
"Natalia is the voice of reason on the team a lot of the time," Natasha said about her fellow co-captain. "When someone has an issue, it’s Natalia that’s going to calm that person down. And I think she’s played a huge part in a lot of experiences for the girls on the team. They know they can depend on Natalia being there, and I do too."
Her coaches see that also. Natalia has practically become a third coach this season, sitting on courts during matches when she’s not playing, and helping her teammates stay focused on their efforts.
"Natalia always puts the team’s interest ﬁrst in everything that she does or says," assistant coach Sara Schiffman said. "Everyone respects her opinion and goes to her for advice. She’s an amazing mentor to the younger players."
Head Coach Ilene Weintraub echoed the sentiments. "Natalia has been an exceptional leader for the past two years," Weintraub said. "She brings a positive attitude to everything that we do. She builds team unity though various events and community service and she’s built an impressive resume off the court."
Natasha, meanwhile, has been working on an impressive resume on the court. She spent most of her junior season playing No.1 doubles and No.2 singles, and this year, has anchored the Lions in the No.3 singles spot all year long. And her tennis story is completely different from Natalia’s.
To say Natasha has tennis in her blood is a little bit of an understatement. Her mother, Luda Makarova, was a professional tennis player for decades and represented Russia on the 1982 Fed Cup team. Makarova has had a racquet in her hands for most of her life. She could hit a ball at five, but didn’t start practicing regularly until she was eight. And by 14, she was ranked near the top of the juniors. Though tennis was a major part of Natasha’s life, so too were academics, and in the end, a desire to go to a good school in the northeast led Natasha to the Ivy League. And for most of the process, Columbia wasn’t even near the top of the list.
"Before I came here, I didn’t know that much about Columbia," Natasha said. "And my parents told me, just go, you should just give it a chance. I was at the info session before my tour, and they were talking about the city and all the opportunities here, and I was sitting there thinking ‘Wow, why wouldn’t I want to come here?’ That’s when it just hit me."
The Columbia women’s tennis program benefited from that strike of lightning, as Natasha has become an integral member of the team, and in the last two seasons, one of the crucial leaders.
"Natasha has always led by example," Schiffman said. "From her composure during matches to her attitude and work ethic in practice, the team was always able to look at Natasha to know what was right."
"Natasha has been an integral part of our line-up for four years," Weintraub said. "She has led the team in conditioning sessions, and on-court mental toughness. She has always been a team player, leading by example and out-working everyone."
And of course the person with the most to say about Natasha’s work ethic is the person who sees it every single day: Natalia.
"Natasha’s role on the team is just to be the absolute model of what everyone should try and be and accomplish at practice," Natalia said. "Because not only is she incredibly hard working when it comes to her academics, but she works harder than almost anyone, on and off the court. She makes us realize that there’s no excuse not to give your best effort every day at practice."
Leading the Lions
And that work ethic has led to a turnaround for Columbia women’s tennis. Though the Lions lost all of their Ivy League matches, they were closer in each match than they have ever been in the recent past, and anyone who saw the team play this year could plainly see that they were better. Columbia beat Cornell at the ECAC tournament, was one set from beating league-leading Dartmouth and traditional powerhouse Princeton had to claw to get a 4-3 win over the Lions.
"Both Natalia and Natasha brought a lot of discipline to the team and set high expectations for everyone," Schiffman said. "They also helped form an extremely cohesive team with amazing camaraderie and energy. There is no question that we will miss their leadership and spirit. However, they have left a lasting impact on this team that will help future teams establish the same discipline, leadership and cohesiveness."
"Our young team has big shoes to fill as we will miss the leadership our co-captains have provided us for the past two years," Weintraub added. "I look forward to seeing which players will step up next year and fill their role. Natasha and Natalia have assured me they are only a phone call away."
The two will have to remind themselves of that, as graduation looms, and separation is imminent. Natalia is staying in New York to work at Bank of America. Natasha is going home to California, where she’ll eventually enroll in medical school. So, the natural question for these two is: what is it going to be like for you next year? They get quiet.
"It's going to be sad," Natalia said.
"Yeah, really sad." Natasha echoes.
And though for a second it seems like both are about to burst into tears, Natalia recovers quickly, ever positive.
"We’re just going to be in a long distance relationship," she says. And the two dissolve into a fit of giggles.
One thing they can agree on is what they’ll miss most come September. While Natalia will miss the classes, Natasha won’t. But they can agree that they’ll truly miss is the women’s tennis team.
"Regardless of the results this year, they’re so much better than they have been in the past," Natalia said. "But aside from that, our team this year is really unbelievable. We could not have asked for a better group, a more special group of girls to have be a part of this Columbia tennis family than the ones we’ve had. I don’t think either of us are ready to give that up. They’re what make practice and agility and all the hard parts of being on the team so enjoyable."
"I think I can speak for both me and Natalia when I say, we both kind of wish we were still on the team next year," Natasha adds. "The team’s just going to get better. They’ll have more of a shot of winning Ivies. And we’re really jealous. We really wanted a ring!"
"When they win Ivies next year, we’re getting a ring," Natalia said. "I want one!"