FAYETTEVILLE - This season, the Arkansas women's tennis team has a very unusual composition. The team entered the 2012-13 season with just one returning player: senior Claudine Paulson.
Amongst a roster that features seven freshmen and one sophomore, Paulson has been a rock for the Razorbacks, providing valuable leadership and capping off a strong career with her best season yet.
A native of Guayquil, Ecuador, Paulson made an immediate impact on the Razorbacks from her freshman year on, and went on to win double digit singles matches over her last three years as Razorback.
Paulson compiled a career record of 79-47 in singles and 77-54 in doubles. Her doubles play was especially strong her entire career. Playing with Anouk Tigu from 2009-2011, she won 43 doubles matches, the third highest mark for any pairing in program history.
Additionally, Paulson and the Razorbacks went to the NCAA Tournament in each of her first three years, while Claudine also advanced to the individual doubles portion of the NCAA Tournament.
"Playing at the NCAA Tournament was an amazing experience," Paulson said. "It is so worth getting to. I also got to go to NCAA doubles with Anouk Tigu and it was an amazing experience. We were right there with all the best players in the country. All of your hard work really pays off when you get to go to the NCAA Tournament."
Building off the strong start to her career, Claudine's senior season has been the most important of her career, as she has embraced an added role. As the lone returner on an otherwise underclassmen squad, including seven players in their first year of collegiate tennis, Paulson is both a role model and a source of inspiration to her teammates.
"This year is hard because you always have to set a good example," Paulson said. "You cannot just have a bad practice. Everyone has bad days, but you have to always set a good example and keep everyone positive. Whenever the team is struggling you need to be the person that they can come and talk to. I always try and help them with that."
With much of the roster unproven at the college ranks, Paulson's role became especially important this season. She has stepped up to increased responsibilities, leading through her play on and off the court, and providing a constant example for her younger teammates to aspire to.
"Claudine's role this year is extremely important," Arkansas head coach Michael Hegarty said. "She's been on some really successful teams, and she understands what it takes a little more than the younger players to have that success on this level. Since we just have the one senior and no juniors, no question the senior absolutely has to be of critical importance. And she's accepted that, even better than I expected. I'm very, very pleased with how she's been helping the younger players. It wasn't that long ago in my mind that she was in their shoes as well. She's seen a lot, and has done a lot, and she's using that experience to help everyone out right now."
To become a good team leader this season, Paulson has drawn inspiration from the older players she learned from early in her career. The Razorback squad has been continually a close knit group, and even with a dramatic turnover on the roster this season, Paulson has helped keep that atmosphere going.
"Being part of this team for four years has been so amazing," Paulson said. "We have changed a lot of people, but everyone was really close to each other. My freshman year we had some older players that really helped the team get close. They taught me how to be a leader, so now as a senior I've had the chance to set an example of what it's like to be a good team and hopefully that will carry on over the years."
In addition to stepping up as a leader in the locker room, Paulson has also had her strongest season on the court as well. This season, Paulson is a team leading 19-5 in singles play, including a 10-3 record in SEC play, and has added eight more wins in doubles play. Her 19 victories tie her for the most dual match victories in the conference, and she is tied for second in the SEC for the most singles wins during conference play."
"For my senior year I just wanted to give my best," Paulson said. "I wanted everybody to remember me in a good way - that I practiced hard and I left a good example. I always fight, and I always strive for that. It worked out, and I'm excited about that and the end of my senior year."
Paulson's game has improved continually over each passing season. With the team depending on her experience this season, she has stepped up with her best performance to date.
"Claudine is on her way to having her best season as a Razorback," Coach Hegarty said. "She came in to the year saying that she wanted this to be her best year, and it's been more than true. She's been very strong at No. 1 doubles and No. 2 singles. We're really counting on her leadership and she's been fantastic on and off the court. We're leaning on her that way and she's standing up strong."
Paulson's playing career will soon be over, and she is schedule to graduate in December. After she earns her degree, she plans to go to culinary school and work as a chef. In the meantime, the impact she has made on the Razorback tennis program will not be shortly forgotten.
"Claudine is as high a quality of kid, and as good of a person that we've ever had in the program," Coach Hegarty said. "She's exactly what we want in a Razorback student athlete. She achieved an amazing amount of things on the court, off the court, and in the classroom. She could not have been a better person all around. We're thrilled with the year she's having. It's been a joy to see her taking on a leadership role. She's been as good a leader as we've ever had, and her career was just a really fantastic one."
For more information on Arkansas women's tennis, please visit ArkansasRazorbacks.com or follow the team on twitter @RazorbackWTEN.