When Kasia Jania, the Scarborough High sophomore and 2009 state singles finalist, decided against playing for her school this spring, it left a void in Maine schoolgirl tennis.

Falmouth, certainly, had plenty of talent. Sophomores Analise Kump and Annie Criscione, and freshman Libby Voccola reached the singles quarterfinals before leading their team to a third straight Class B state title.

But it was someone from away who stepped in.

Elena Mandzhukova, born in Bulgaria and living in Portugal, came to Brunswick High as an exchange student and rekindled her passion for a sport she nearly abandoned.

Mandzhukova dispatched Voccola, Criscione and Kump in the quarters, semis and finals to win the state singles tournament. For doing so, she is our Maine Sunday Telegram MVP for girls’ tennis.

“It was more than I expected,” Mandzhukova said before returning to Europe this month. “I think this win got me back in tennis and gave me more motivation.”

Growing up in Bulgaria as the daughter of pro athletes — her mother was a long jumper and her father threw the javelin — Mandzhukova spent plenty of time in sports clubs. One had a wall for tennis. A coach spotted her hitting balls against it.

“I was 7 or 8 when I started,” she said.

A club in Portugal hired her father, but before moving the family, he and his wife gave this new country a year-long tryout. Elena stayed in Bulgaria with her grandparents and her new sport, tennis. She joined her parents a year later at age 9.

In Portugal, Mandzhukova continued to play and rose in national rankings. At 13, she ventured to California to attend the Weil Tennis Academy.

Her academics were advanced enough that she skipped a year, jumping from sixth to eighth grade. Upon returning to Portugal after 10 months, she put off school and played internationally.

“That was my goal,” she said, “being a pro tennis player.”

But somewhere along the way, the game lost its pizazz. When tennis stopped being fun, Mandzhukova stopped playing. She was 15.

“I just didn’t believe in myself,” she said. “I thought I’d do volleyball or basketball at school.”

Two years later, she found herself back in the U.S. as an exchange student in coastal Maine. At first she stayed with a welcoming family, headed by Rob Manter, owner and director of Maine Pines Racquet & Fitness in Brunswick as well as the new high school girls’ tennis coach. After a few weeks, she settled with the Martinez family, which had a daughter on the verge of high school graduation and two sons in college.

“She’s a great kid,” said Cathy Kelley, Brunswick High’s assistant coach and an English teacher at the school. “Quiet and unassuming and gracious with her opponents. She modeled hard work and integrity. We were lucky to have her.”

A victory over Kump in a preseason scrimmage immediately branded Mandzhukova as the player to beat. No one ever did beat her; she won every set she played, including rallying from a 4-1 deficit in the second-set tiebreaker of a 6-4, 7-6 (7-4) victory over Kump for the singles title.

“I think everybody lifted their game and played stronger with her leadership,” Kelley said after Brunswick concluded its season with a 3-2 loss in the Eastern Class A final to Lewiston, which went on to win its fifth straight state title. “It was like running a race with a premier runner next to you.”

Mandzhukova liked Maine well enough to want to return for her senior year, to Kents Hill, a boarding school. She hopes to play college tennis in the United States.

“I think her chances of getting into a Division I school and playing tennis are good,” Kelley said. “I just can’t say enough good things about her.” 

Staff Writer Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at:

gjordan@pressherald.com