Staying strong and hopeful is a goal for Marko Nikoliuk, a senior entrepreneurial finance major at Southern Arkansas University who hails from Kakhovka, Kherson Oblast, Ukraine. The nationally-ranked Mulerider tennis player is competing this Spring Break week against top-rated teams in Georgia and Alabama. Nikoliuk has found a way to balance grades and tennis with concern for his family in Ukraine, where the deadly Russian invasion is entering its fourth week.
The 10th-ranked Muleriders, holding the highest national NCAA ranking in SAU’s young tennis history, beat West Alabama Sunday in Livingston, Ala., but lost to the 3rd-ranked Columbus State, the highest-ranked opponent the team has ever faced, on Tuesday. Nikoliuk was ranked 10th in the nation in singles and 13th with his partner, Sander Jans, in the doubles duo going into Tuesday’s match with another strong opponent, 9th-ranked North Georgia. The team will play Georgia College on Wednesday and conclude with a final match in Alabama on Thursday.
“I think it will be a tough match,” Nikoliuk said of Tuesday’s game, “but we’ll make it. We have two more matches after today; we’ve never played either team, so we don’t know what to expect. These are solid teams, but we will manage. Today needs to be a win.”
Nikoliuk, who previously attended Kakhovka General Secondary School 5 in Ukraine, has built an impressive tennis career at SAU, with an overall career record of 93-41 entering Spring Break, a singles record of 45-26, and a doubles record of 48-15. His awards include being named a 2019-20 ITA All-American, the 2021 ITA Central Region Singles Champion, a two-time ITA Cup qualifier, a CoSIDA Academic All-District 7 First Teamer honoree, the 2021 GAC Flight 1 Doubles Champion, and a multiple-time all-conference selection in both singles and doubles. In addition, he holds several program records.
Having started playing tennis in Ukraine at an early age, Nikoliuk has enough experience to realize that good play involves the mental game. “In my first year at SAU, we were a younger team,” he said, “but now, we are more prepared mentally. We practice hitting the ball, but from the mental side, it’s different. Everyone has to come fighting. You can have a bad day, but you have to find a way to come back.”
Greg Owen, SAU’s head men’s and women’s tennis coach, praised Nikoliuk as “a consistent winner since he arrived. He truly is a great player. He is relentless on the court, one of the anchors of our team.”
Owen called Nikoliuk “a professional in how he takes care of business on and off the court. He makes me proud to be a coach, and I appreciate what he brings to this team daily.”
Nikoliuk was inspired to participate in athletics by his father, who played professional soccer and other sports. Marko began playing tennis around the age of six and decided around age ten that he wanted to work towards going to college in the United States on a tennis scholarship. He now enjoys his college life on the SAU campus.
“Everyone is so nice, and Magnolia is a charming town not unlike where I grew up,” he said. “Everyone knows each other, and it’s really a family here.”
The tennis team supports many other events and organizations on campus, which Nikoliuk said is important. “It’s our job to support each other,” he said. “Before college, I didn’t have any teammates, and for me, tennis was an individual sport. Now I’m part of a team. You are there for each other. You have friends next to you that, no matter what, are going to help you.” He noted, “At the end of the day, we are all Muleriders, and we need to support each other.”
Nikoliuk has experienced that support since Russia invaded his home country on Feb. 24. “All my teammates, everyone’s talking to me. Even people I don’t know are giving nice words to pick me up. The people here, they care.”
Though his father and brother are both outside Ukraine, his mother remains in Kakhovka, which the Russians have attacked.
“My father was working in Europe and is still there,” he said. “My brother was in the capital of Kyiv; he left with his girlfriend, they went west to stay with her parents. My mom is in my hometown. There was bombing the first day; Russian forces still surround them. She has to stay, and there is no leaving.”
Though he can talk with his father and brother as often as possible, communication with his mother is more complicated. “They started switching service off, and the Internet is not great. I can’t really call her,” he said.
He has had to find ways of coping with the news out of Ukraine.
“Early on, I checked everything I could possibly check. I was nervous inside. I basically could not do anything, and I was trying to follow what was going on there. I was not focused, not playing great. I decided not to keep checking like before, just to call my parents and try to keep focused. Life continues, and I cannot allow myself to be down.”
Owen praised Nikoliuk’s efforts. “With this unimaginable situation and all of his concern for home, Marko has found a way to excel. His teammates and the campus family have offered great support during all this.”
The SAU Women’s Tennis team also has a Ukrainian player, freshman Inna Serukhova.
Dr. Trey Berry, president of SAU, offered concern for both players’ families. “It has been wonderful to experience our SAU Community surrounding Marko and Inna with love and friendship,” Berry said. “The people of SAU are reaching out to them continually with care and support in the months ahead.”
Nikoliuk said he hopes the war will conclude soon.
“The best outcome is to end this as soon as possible. I know people, close friends, who are already not with us. It’s tough. I’m praying for everyone who is there, fighting for us.”
He said Ukraine’s president has united Ukraine in unexpected ways. “Our president has been strong. We are together, everyone as a nation. This is his job, giving everyone hope for a bright future, including me.”
Nikoliuk will meet the requirements for baccalaureate graduation in December 2022. He remains open to future possibilities. “My primary goal is to create my own business. I have some ideas to make my dreams real.”
Story and photos courtesy of Southern Arkansas University.