UNLV women's tennis coach Kevin Cory had never heard of Nives Pavlovic when he received a random email from Belgrade, Serbia, three years ago.
But Cory read the note and soon was recruiting an athlete who would eventually become the key player in his lineup.
Pavlovic, now a junior, plays a vital role for the Rebels, at the No. 1 position in doubles and the No. 3 spot in singles.
"I got an email from her dad, who wanted to know if we had a scholarship available," said Cory, who immediately began researching Pavlovic on the Internet. "We did, and that's why I began recruiting her hard."
Pavlovic has not disappointed. She went 24-13 in singles as a freshman and 19-14 last year. She's off to a 6-4 start in dual-match play this season and has become the squad's veteran leader.
"We don't have any seniors," Cory said. "So the younger kids look to her for leadership."
Pavlovic said she doesn't view herself as the team's mentor.
"I am older and I have more experience," the 22-year-old said. "But I think everyone on the team is a leader."
Cory argued that his other players view Pavlovic as a role model.
"Without a doubt, she's the most powerful player we have on the team," Cory said. "She has a huge serve and a big ground stroke. She's capable of demoralizing opponents with her power."
Pavlovic acknowledged that she takes pride in overpowering the competition.
"I try to be aggressive and take control," she said. "I want to win every match. I get mad when we lose because I expect to win every time."
But Cory said Pavlovic's value to the team has increased due to an injury to Rumyana Terzieva, who started the season at the No. 4 singles spot. Terzieva's knee injury has forced each player in the bottom half of the lineup to move up one position. The move has hurt the Rebels, while placing more pressure on Pavlovic.
Cory said his veteran has not backed down from the challenge.
"She's a great competitor," he said. "She's been in some real big matches for us, and she has clinched some wins against some high-ranked teams. One thing I've noticed is that she has matured as a player. She handles the pressure and doesn't let the little things get to her."
Pavlovic, ranked seventh in the ITA Mountain Region, said she has learned to take one match at a time.
"Even if you lose, there's another match coming," she said. "You have to be ready to play again right away. I feel like I'm representing the team, and I want the team to win."
Best of all, Cory said, is the fact that Pavlovic and the rest of the lineup will return next season.
"We've got a real young team, but it's a very talented team," the coach said. "We're going to take some lumps this year, but we're going to be really dangerous in the next couple of years."
That doesn't mean anyone has given up on a successful 2012 campaign. The Rebels (6-4) return to action Friday, when they host UNR at 10 a.m. at Fertitta Tennis Complex. They open Mountain West Conference play March 24 at Wyoming.
"I'm pretty sure we're going to be good in conference," Pavlovic said.
Cory, whose squad entered the week ranked 37th in the nation, agreed that the Rebels will battle hard in an attempt to earn their fifth consecutive NCAA Tournament invitation.
"Our goals don't change," he said. "We still expect to compete for a conference championship and get into the NCAA Tournament."
Jeff Wollard is a freelance reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com.