Rosie Dion and Alexandra “Sasha” Perper may be two of the most successful students at Mississippi State, athlete or not.
The pair has combined for 15 singles wins for the Bulldog women’s tennis team, Dion with an unblemished 8-0 record and Perper sitting at an equally-undefeated 7-0.
Off the court, the two seniors were named International Tennis Association Academic All-Americans and received Presidential Scholar honors from the university. Perper has an impressive 3.81 GPA, while Dion has never made anything other than an A since arriving on campus, boasting a perfect 4.00.
The success in class only makes their on-court tear to start the 2014 season even more impressive.
The two arrived to this perfect record in very different ways, though.
Dion, discovered by head coach Daryl Greenan at a competition in Quebec, moved down south with a world of talent. But for three years, she suffered through injury after injury, never at 100 percent for tennis. Now, in her fourth and final season, she’s actually healthy, a big part of why she’s playing so well.
“It was really hard,” she said. “I felt as if these first three years were just so frustrating, going through all these surgeries and all these shots and everything. This semester is the first semester that I feel really good. I worked hard during Christmas break. It was the first Christmas break where I wasn’t in PT. I worked hard and I came back and I feel good. I’m really happy.”
Perper, on the other hand, is undefeated as a result of steady growth over a career she began with great talent already intact.
She was MSU’s No. 1 player from her first day on campus and has proven to be one of Greenan’s most potent weapons, regularly facing the country’s best players and moving up and down the rankings.
“On a given day,” Greenan said, “Sasha could compete and beat anyone in the country. Both these girls have given so much to the program and taken so much ownership and have been so fired up for their senior years. One of the biggest improvements we’ve made in the program since we’ve been here is the whole culture and environment. It’s fun now.”
Starting this weekend, the non-conference portion of the schedule finishes and the SEC slate begins, something both Perper and Dion say they’re excited for.
Beyond health, Dion’s game has improved at the same pace her backhand has become more reliable, as she says she’s gone from merely being able to return with it to now being able to win a point with her now-powerful backhand.
Perper credits increased strength, speed and control for her early-season success.
“I definitely progressed,” Perper said. “I’m really excited because we get a lot of matches against top-ranked schools. I’m just looking forward to it. Now my goal is just to finish it off really well.”
However, like any great story of sport, the wins haven’t come without drama for the two.
Dion’s closest brush with defeat came in a road match she remembers well; a story best heard through her words and thoughts.
“We played Houston,” Dion began. “They were ranked and I knew it was gonna be a tough match. The coaches put me up and I was playing four and I was like, ‘Oh, I’m so nervous.’
“It ends up, I lost the first match 6-3, but I had a good feeling, you know? I was like, ‘Rosi, don’t give up. Don’t give up.’
“Then I won the second set 7-6 in a tiebreak.
“Then the third set was a 10-point tiebreaker because I was the last one on. I was down 3-1. Down 5-3. Down 7-5, then I was down 9-7 and I had two match points against me. I was like, ‘No, Rosi. No, no, no, not right now.’ And then finally, I don’t know how I did it, but I managed to come back and I won 11-9 in a tiebreak.
“I was just so happy and so proud to just dig in and win that match.”
As she stands today, Dion has played eight matches on the season, while also having applied to seven different medical schools, whom she expects to hear back from soon as she moves toward her dream of becoming a pediatrician.
Perper, a native of Moldova, will finish both her tennis career and her degree in business by the time the summer arrives.
But, promising futures aside, their most current concern is the next match on the schedule – Auburn this weekend.
“I’m so excited,” Dion said. “Finally, SEC coming in. It’s all going to be great matches. We’re gonna have so many good opportunities because we’re the underdog. It’s going to be good for us.”