Last August, Diana Shnaider, a teenage tennis player from Russia, was traveling solo in Europe with a world-class forehand but no working bank card because of financial sanctions against her country. She had to pay for hotels, flights and food with cash.
Last week, she led the North Carolina State women’s tennis team, which is ranked ninth in Division I, to a victory over second-ranked Ohio State.
“Things were bad, but they’re better now,” Shnaider said on Wednesday on a video call from Columbus, Ohio.
Shnaider, a left-hander with a flashy and powerful style of play, has found stability in the game, even though many observers never believed she would choose college tennis over playing on the professional tour full time. The skeptics included her college coach, Simon Earnshaw.
“I didn’t think she was going to come,” Earnshaw said in a telephone interview. “But she’s kind of unique. As an 18-year-old, she’s still a kid, but she’s very clear on how she sees the game and what’s important to her and what’s not important to her. And, really, the only thing that’s important to her is, ‘How do I get better?’”
When she arrived in Raleigh, N.C., last summer, she ranked 249th on the WTA Tour in singles. She is up to 90th after a surge in Australia, where she qualified for her first Grand Slam singles tournament, the Australian Open, and lost in the second round to sixth-seeded Maria Sakkari of Greece, 3-6, 7-5, 6-3.
Shnaider has big weapons in her slashing forehand and serve. She has quick feet and an attacking mentality that has been there since she learned the game in Tolyatti, across the Volga River from Zhigulevsk, her hometown. She moved to Moscow at age 9 with her family to find better training opportunities.
“I never wanted to be a pusher,” she said. “I was always like: ‘OK, here’s the shot. I’m killing it.’”
At the Australian Open, her fist pumps and celebratory shouts rattled Sakkari, who thought they were directed at her. Shnaider said that was a misunderstanding and that she was shouting toward her team in the player’s box on Sakkari’s side of the court.
Shnaider said her run in Australia — and the more than $140,000 in prize money that came with it — did not make her rethink her decision to play in college, even if it has been tough for her to read harsh criticism of it on social media.
“I understand with my mind that I’m doing everything right, but of course when people say mean things it goes to my heart and soul,” she said. “But I’m trying to just go my own way.”
Shnaider is the first woman ranked in the top 100 in singles to play college tennis since 1993, when the American Lisa Raymond played at Florida. Shnaider has gone undefeated in singles matches this season for N.C. State, which is not a traditional college tennis power. But the Wolfpack are 7-1 and undefeated with Shnaider in the lineup.
“She’s the best player to play college tennis in a while, for sure,” said Geoff Macdonald, the former women’s coach at Vanderbilt.
The American college game has resumed being a pathway to professional success in recent years with college standouts like Cameron Norrie, Jennifer Brady and Danielle Collins making successful transitions. But what separates Shnaider from them is that she made inroads in the pro game before college. (N.C.A.A. rules allow players to use prize money to cover their documented tennis expenses at any time during that same calendar year, but they must donate any excess to remain eligible.)
Shnaider’s decision was partly because of geopolitics: It allowed her to establish a base in the United States while her country is viewed as a pariah in much of the West.
“I think 100 percent her being Russian made the difference,” David Secker, an N.C. State assistant coach, said.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 brought sanctions against Russians. For tennis players, the sanctions complicated travel and training, and raised the possibility of Russian players being excluded from tournaments (to date, Wimbledon has been the only major individual event to do so).
Shnaider, who split with her coach in June, wanted to ensure she could keep playing competitively and improve on hardcourts. Her best results had come on clay.
“I was really afraid and thinking what will I do sitting in Russia without coach and without matches?” she said.
Before committing to N.C. State, she had to overcome her doubts. “I thought it would mean like I’m quitting the tennis, the professional career,” she said.
Her father, Maksim, who helped shape her game, was against it. But her mother, Julia, a trained pianist more focused on education, pushed for it and helped make the initial contact with Secker last April through a Russian family in the United States.
Secker, like Earnshaw, was skeptical that Shnaider was serious about attending college, but he organized a video call and then met with Shnaider and her mother at the French Open in June. The family remained divided on the issue, however, and Shnaider, when she was back on the road, kept having emotional phone calls with her parents.
“I was in the middle of nowhere, and I was like, this is not helping me,” Shnaider said. “And my dad was like, this is your decision, so make your first whole decision by yourself.”
It would be N.C. State. Bureaucratic issues made her wait five days in Warsaw for her student visa, and she sprinted down a hall at the U.S. Embassy to collect it before closing time on a Friday. But she made it to the United States a few days before the U.S. Open junior tournament and reached the semifinals of the girls’ event in singles and won in doubles with Lucie Havlickova.
But Shnaider remained athletically ineligible. She had signed a contract with Wesport, a management agency in Sweden, and, Earnshaw said, the N.C.A.A. needed to examine the agreement to ensure that any payments she had received were in exchange for the use of her name, image and likeness, which is now permitted by the N.C.A.A.
The process took nearly five months to resolve. “It was extremely protracted frustration,” Earnshaw said.
Shnaider got clearance on Feb. 3, the day before a home match with Oklahoma. Though she has gone undefeated in singles with the team, she has been pleasantly surprised by the level of play. For example, she had to save a match point before defeating Sydni Ratliff of Ohio State.
“I was worried I was going to lose time and lose my motivation,” Shnaider said of playing college tennis. But she noted that has not happened. “I’m getting out of my apartment at 8 a.m., coming back at 8 p.m., and I’m passed out.”
She is about to start juggling college tennis and tour tennis, competing at the WTA event in Monterrey, Mexico, where the main draw starts Monday. Then comes the qualifying event at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif. Going deep at either tournament will mean she is likely to miss some college matches.
“I would say logistics is the biggest challenge for Diana,” Secker said. “And I also think doubt is a huge part because I think there’s always this doubt that if I’m playing a college match, am I missing out on an opportunity in the pro game? If I’m playing pro, am I letting down my team in some way?”
For at least a few more months, Shnaider will try to do justice to both worlds, but the challenge pales in comparison to taking on the satellite circuit last year with no chaperone or modern means of payment. When she won a title in Istanbul, the organizers had to give her the nearly $9,000 in prize money in cash.
“I was like, what am I supposed to do with that?” she said holding her right thumb and index finger far apart to show the size of the stack of bank notes. “I was so careful.”
At other times, she said, she barely had enough cash to pay for a night’s hotel.
“My parents were feeling really insecure for me,” she said. “My mom was like, ‘Don’t carry your passport, don’t go outside, don’t speak Russian, just stay in the hotel.’ Because she just didn’t know what people can do.”