Oct. 10, 2011
SAN DIEGO, Calif.- The match is about to start but Laura Claus is still tying her shoes. Sure, it's taken her nearly ten minutes to complete this normally mindless task, but it's not just a matter of loop, swoop, and pull for the University of San Diego junior. Instead, she's been using the time to get her mind right for her upcoming battle.
As she gingerly handles the laces of her spotless white Nikes, Claus finds her focus in this zen-like pre-match routine. Every match, no questions asked- she takes her time to lace up her sneakers and takes a swig of the water bottle under her feet, which is always flanked by a bottle of apple juice, a routine she's practiced since she was a young player growing up in Germany.
For Claus, a native of Wiesbaden, Germany, this custom has translated into terrific success throughout her first two seasons as a Torero. En route to being named first-team All-West Coast Conference in singles in 2011 and honorable mention in doubles, Claus compiled a team-best 24-6 singles record, including a near-flawless 7-1 mark against WCC opponents, while also throwing in a career-long 16-match singles winning streak for good measure.
As the Toreros' primary No. 3 last season, Claus helped guide the USD women to their first NCAA Championship appearance since 1999, leading the Toreros to a first-round victory over UNLV before eventually losing to UCLA in the second round. Claus and fellow German, Anna Depenau (Gielenkirchen, Germany), were the only Toreros to win all four of their singles matches in the WCC Championships, where USD finished second, and the NCAAs.
It's safe to say that Claus has fit right into USD's tennis plans since arriving in San Diego three years ago. After getting her start in tennis through the influence of her family, notably her father's aunt, who still plays today at 90 years old, Claus split her early athletic years between tennis and field hockey. Around the age of 10, the German Tennis Federation recognized Claus's potential on the court and approached her about joining the Federation, where Claus was quickly funneled into a competitive training program designed to develop future German tennis professionals.
Claus started traveling heavily around Germany and Europe to compete in tournaments throughout her teenage years. At 16, she advanced to the quarterfinals of the U18 German Championships, proving to herself that she fit right in with Germany's older, better players and giving her the kind of success that told her she could play tennis at a high level.
"You start winning tournaments and get better and better and you get confidence," said Claus about her developing passion for tennis as a teenager. "It's through winning tournaments that you realize that this is something you want to get involved with and it's rewarding and fun. [The German Championships] were the first time I reached something like that and I was working very hard and it kind of paid off. Then you feel like this is actually working what I'm doing."
Before long Claus had broken into the top-10 of the German tennis rankings and began seeing the kind of attention paid by American college coaches to top international prospects. When the letters and e-mails started rolling in, it was the first time that Claus had even considered college tennis as an option, let alone traveling to the United States to pursue it. The 80+ schools that were competing for her services brought the idea of playing collegiately in the US to the forefront of Claus' plans.
"I got a lot of offers and I decided I wanted to go somewhere sunny and warm and where I could practice outside," said Claus. "I looked at schools on the west coast and I didn't really consider USD, honestly. A lot of coaches came to Germany to look at how I was playing, but I didn't really feel comfortable with them."
When Claus came on a recruiting trip to a handful of schools in the US, USD wound up on the list despite the fact that head coach Sherri Stephens had never seen Claus play in person, only on a video that Claus had sent to Stephens herself.
"I loved the USD campus, environment, coaches, and the team. Everything just fit together. The weather was perfect to practice and play."
The decision to attend college certainly made Claus' parents happy, since they had always encouraged Laura to get a good education that would set her up for success off the court later in life. So far Claus, a Psychology and Business Administration double major, has followed her parents' academic footsteps- her mother, Elisabeth, started her own business as a psychiatrist specializing in family therapy and patients with ADHD, while her father, Dieter, is a neurologist and works with Claus' mother.
Last year, Claus put together an impressive 3.93 GPA, earning her WCC Commissioner's Honor Roll recognition, WCC All-Academic honors and an ITA Scholar-Athlete nod, not to mention being the highest GPA among all USD student-athletes for the 2010-2011 academic year. The opportunity to play tennis while also earning her degree is something that Claus truly appreciates and would not have had in Germany.
"We don't have college tennis at all in Germany. We don't have the college and sports combinations. I'm very glad I came here because I can do what I love; that is practicing, being on the court, and having fun with my team but also doing the majors I want to do. It's just perfect. I love the combination of tennis and school. And I have awesome professors and everything just worked out."
Claus' athletic and academic excellence is a direct reflection of her German background. She admits that she fits the quintessential German tennis player profile to a tee.
"A German tennis player is very, very hard-working, very disciplined, very organized, on time all the time. They're just very, very focused. Germans tend to be a little more negative, I would say, compared to other cultures. They get angry at themselves very fast."
Claus adds how she follows that model: "I have a plan for everything. I know when to be on the court, when to leave the court, when I have conditioning. I'm a perfectionist. That's a strength but also a weakness. I always want to do everything perfect and if it doesn't work I get frustrated. That's kind of the German thing."
For someone who is used to having complete control of her environment, it was a huge adjustment to life in a new country, dealing with new people and unfamiliar customs. Claus had never been to the US before tennis brought her to USD and she can look back now at how far she has come in her relatively short time in America.
"I had a big, big culture shock when I came here. Everything was huge! I was just overwhelmed because there was so much variety of things and everything is WAY bigger than in Germany, I mean EVERYTHING- streets, houses, cars."
In addition to experiencing Mexican food for the first time and getting used to what Claus describes as a much "warmer" American culture where physical contact and close personal interaction are the norm, Claus had to adjust to a new language, not just for basic communication, but in order to hold her own in classes at a very academically-challenging institution.
"It was pretty hard. My first semester I took six classes and the first month I didn't understand what the professors were saying. I was missing due dates and exam dates. I didn't know what the syllabus was. Then I started translating readings into German, which took A LOT of time because I had to translate and then learn the vocabulary in English too. It was a lot but you kind of pick it up. You get really frustrated when you can't express what you want to say, you can't express your feelings properly. My freshman year was bad but I just kind of adapted."
Now that she has settled into her new home- albeit most likely a temporary home since she wants to eventually move back to Europe to pursue a career in management consulting- Claus recognizes the value of the experience she had in transitioning to a new culture.
"I'm way more outgoing than I was in Germany. In Germany you kind of work by yourself and you're more introverted. People here are way more extroverted. I kind of adapted to that. Also, I think I'm more balanced in life in general. I enjoy everything I'm doing. I'm trying to enjoy every minute I'm on the court. It may sound weird but I love studying and I love what I do. I found something that I love and it keeps me going."
Don't let the quiet, unassuming demeanor sway you, however. Claus transforms into a different person on the court. While not always the most demonstrative or loudest, she is a self-described "fighter". Nowhere has that been shown better than her clinching singles victory last season that helped the Toreros upset then-No. 15 Washington at home.
Claus was playing the final match of the day, with the outcome resting on the result of her contest. Claus held a 5-4 advantage in the third set over Washington's Samantha Smith, but dropped consecutive games, giving Smith the 6-5 edge. With her back against the wall, Claus broke Smith's serve to even it at 6-6 and then pounded away like a calculating machine until pulling out the win with a final tally of 6-3, 5-7, 7-6 (5).
"I'm really feisty on the court. A lot of people criticize me for that but I think it's a good thing, honestly. I think that's my strength. I won a lot of matches, like the Washington match, where you just have to act like that. You have to be confident and go out there thinking `I'm just going to win'."
The confidence Claus exudes comes from the lessons she has gleaned from those individuals who have had a notable influence on her over the years.
"Sherri and Pato (assistant coach Patricia Tarabini) and (volunteer assistant coach) Millie (Sequera Huss), they help me grow on the court. I feel like when you improve on the court you improve in your life too. You know how to handle things better. They taught me how to handle pressure better. I can see why I do so well in academics because I do so well on the court. I learned a lot of stuff that you can project to other things in your life."
Despite the success that Claus experienced individually and with the team last year, she believes that nothing should change in terms of her preparation or how the team handles itself moving forward.
"Since we did so well last season expectations are really high and we have to keep working and learning how to deal with that pressure we have on us right now. It's not always good just to keep it going. Things have to change now that we want to improve for the season. People are more confident. I feel that when you achieve something you can lay back for a while but now it's time to get back on track and to improve and work on things that maybe didn't work last season."
If there's one thing that Claus has exemplified in her time as a Torero, it's that consistency and relentless determination to reach personal perfection is a sure recipe for success on the court and off. And as long as Claus is taking her sweet time in order to achieve that for herself, it is certainly going to rub off on her teammates.