By Caleb Barron
Big 12 Campus Correspondent
Nina Pantic has lived on three continents, the East Coast, the West Coast and, now, the Midwest. She is a prototypical world traveler. At each stop, the University of Missouri senior has made her home on the fine grass, chalky clay and top paint of tennis courts. Pantic is a true tennis lifer. For the time being, she has brought her experience and tennis acumen to Columbia, Mo. But getting there wasn't easy.
Pantic was born in Belgrade, Serbia just two years after the world's current No. 1 ranked player, Novak Djokovic, and former women's No. 1 ranked player, Ana Ivanovic, were born in the same city. She didn't stay long - her parents moved to Zimbabwe when she was two - but Pantic still shares a tennis connection with her fellow Serbs. Her family would move from Zimbabwe to Canada before permanently settling in Lake Worth, Fla., when she was 11 years old. It was in Florida that Pantic took her tennis to a new level. She learned under a private coach, was home-schooled and relentlessly practiced.
"It's a big difference from a normal kid, playing all day instead of going to school," Pantic says.
The work paid off. By 2007, Pantic was ready to graduate and start college, and she was ranked as the No. 4 tennis player in the country by TennisRecruiting.net. She admits added pressure came with the high expectations.
"You are a blue chip and all that, so you're supposed to be good and winning things," Pantic says.
Pantic made her first move in seven years (an eternity for her), heading west to Westwood to play tennis for the UCLA Bruins. But amongst all the California love, there was trouble brewing.
"My freshman year was a bit of a mess," Pantic says.
Between the ages of 15-16, Pantic had accepted prize money at a pro tournament that was framed as an open invitational. The NCAA came calling. Pantic lost a half season with the team.
Like any good redemption story, the tale of Nina Pantic took an immediate turn for the better. The NCAA infraction didn't keep her down long. In the second semester of her freshman year, UCLA was in postseason play and Pantic had her chance at the spotlight. The second round (Round of 32) of the Women's Division 1 Championship had come down to her match.
"For UCLA, the second round isn't supposed to be close, but it was," Pantic says. "I was losing badly, and came back to win 6-0 in the third, and we ended up going to the Sweet Sixteen. That's the one match that really stands out in my career."
Pantic continued to play good tennis for UCLA over the next few seasons, compiling a composite 44-21 record before she came to a crossroads. Pantic knew she wanted to go to graduate school for journalism, but UCLA didn't offer the program. She got creative. She demonstrated a high level of intelligence. Nina Pantic did what so few others can do. She made the NCAA system work in her favor.
The NCAA has a rule that says you can't receive aid or compete at two institutions within one academic year. That means if Pantic accepted her scholarship and played for UCLA during the first semester of her senior year, she would have exhausted her eligibility. Pantic was set to graduate in December. She knew she would be ready to go to graduate school by 2012. So she met with the compliance staff at UCLA and devised a plan.
Pantic would finish up most of her classes during summer 2011. She would need only one more class to graduate, which she would pay for. She would not accept her athletic scholarship. Pantic was free to explore graduate schools and take a season of tennis eligibility with her.
It came down to two schools: Indiana or Missouri. Home of the world's first journalism school - founded in 1908 by Walter Williams - Missouri had a lot of academic cachet. Pantic knew she wanted to study journalism, but, in true world traveler fashion, she wasn't sure about Columbia's small airport.
"The airport situation freaked me out," Pantic says. "Other than that, I felt pretty good about [Columbia]."
Ultimately, journalism won out - Pantic calls the Missouri School of Journalism "unbeatable" - and first year Missouri Head Coach Sasha Schmid had picked up a ringer.
"It was a really great pick up for us to be able to get someone with her level of experience and the ability to have played on a Final Four team," Schmid says.
Pantic arrived in Columbia in January, only to be thrown straight into the fire. On her first weekend in her new home, the team was on the road competing. Journalism school wasn't doing her any favors, either.
"It was a disaster," Pantic says. "I was doing all these shifts for Reporting and writing all these stories. I would go straight from practice to do a story, but as I've figured it out, it's gotten a lot easier."
Despite not playing an organized tennis match since the previous April, Pantic had no trouble playing top-notch tennis; she got a win over Notre Dame's top player in Missouri's first dual match.
She made friends just as quickly. Particularly, Pantic bonded with fellow senior Jamie Mera. The two are now planning a postseason trip to Europe.
""It's weird when I think about it, because I realize I've only known her since January," Mera says. "When you are on a team together, you spend a lot of time together."
Perhaps the way Pantic has made the transition has been most impressive of all.
"It's one thing to come in and suddenly be the No. 1 singles player and No. 1 doubles combination, but she did a great job of being very humble and finding her place," Schmid says.
For the always-moving, suspension-beating, airport-scrutinizing, Europe-traveling Pantic, finding her place is just part of the game.