NEW ORLEANS -- Mariam Kurdadze has seen enough in her 22 years to know she has seen too much.

She’s seen tanks rolling down the streets of her hometown of Tbilisi, the capital of the Republic of Georgia. She’s seen houses on fire, people dying, bombs flying through the air when she should have been practicing her serve and volley.

So many times a game or a match is called a battle or a conflict. Kurdadze has lived through the real thing -- real civil war between her nation and the invading Russian army.  A conflict that flared up dramatically four years ago -- just about the time when she was trying to make her way to the United States to play tennis at Tulane.

“I’m sitting here trying to fathom what it would be like to see a tank rolling down my street for my protection,” Tulane women’s tennis coach Terri Sisk said. “I just can’t.”

[The tennis court is] the only place I don’t have to think about anything else.
-- Tulane senior Mariam Kurdadze

When she flew to America, Kurdadze had to wade through a sea of evacuees trying to flee the country in advance of the Russians. Areas near the airport in Tbilisi were being bombed and there were tight restrictions on luggage because of the crush of people trying to get away.

Three days after Kurdadze arrived in 2008 she was an evacuee. Just three years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, Hurricane Gustav was bearing down on South Louisiana, leaving three feet of inky brown floodwater on top of the olive and blue courts of Tulane’s Goldring Tennis Center.

Many of Tulane’s athletes went home to ride the storm out. Civil war and civil defense warnings left Miko (Kurdadze’s middle name and the one her teammates and coaches use most) no such options. She was shuffled off to Jackson State, three hours north of New Orleans, sharing a spot in JSU’s basketball arena-turned-shelter with members of the womens’ golf team.

Then it was off to Alabama with the football team. Back home in Tbilisi, Kurdadze’s mother wanted to know where she was.

“Where are you?” her mother, Kedevan, asked across the crackling long distance line.

“I’m in school, everything’s fine,” was Kurdadze’s half-truth reply.

Her mother reminded Mariam that they still had TV in Georgia.

“She had figured it out,” Kurdadze said.

The war raging back home and the storm raging across the Gulf of Mexico were only part of the Kurdadze equation.

Miko had only made it to Tulane on her second attempt. Her first recruiting trip ended before it began. Her father, Goeha, suffered a heart attack while driving Miko to the Tbilisi airport to fly to New Orleans. (She said he has since recovered well).

It took several panic-filled hours that day before Sisk finally got Mariam on the phone and figured out what happened to the promising prospect with the roundhouse groundstrokes.

Eventually, Sisk decided to take Miko to see a psychologist. Soon, the analyst found out what everyone who meets Kurdadze finds out: a bubbly, personable exterior coats a core made of iron.

“I don’t know how you stay so positive,” the analyst told Kurdadze.

“You’ll go crazy if you get negative about it,” was Kurdadze’s reply.

“It’s just trying to look forward to better and positive things, thinking that I just have to play tennis and relax. That’s the only place I don’t have to think about anything else.”

Occasionally, though, between the white lines and the penalties college tennis players have to call on themselves, a harder edge to Kurdadze’s personality shows through.

If the player on the other side of the net happens to be Russian, the match becomes much more personal. The father of Kurdadze’s best friend was killed by a Russian soldier two months after Miko arrived at Tulane.

“When she finds out they’re Russian, she goes to a whole other level,” Sisk said. “The things the Russians did to their country, I think it’s deeper than any of us could understand.”

“I don’t like it when I play Russians,” Kurdadze said. “Every time I play them I think about what’s been going on [back home]. Even though it’s not them, it’s hard and a big motivation when you come from Georgia.”

After this season Kurdadze hopes to work in the Tulane athletic department promoting the game of tennis.
Tulane Athletics

War and peaceful academic pursuits have pretty much kept Kurdadze away from home and any proximity to Russians except on the tennis court. She has been home only once during her college career, and that was two years ago. Visits wither twin brother Nikoloz -- a senior on the tennis team at Drexel who started his college career at Portland -- are only slightly more frequent.

So instead of taking a midnight flight to Georgia, Kurdadze might go to St. Petersburg (Florida, not Russia) to spend the Christmas holiday with teammates Lindsay and Emily Dvorak and their family. Or she might have Thanksgiving dinner at the home of Tulane Athletic Director Rick Dickson.

It isn’t hard for Kurdadze to make a favorable impression on the people around her.

“Mariam has been a model student-athlete during her tenure at Tulane,” Dickson said. “She embodies so many of the qualities that we value. Her personality and spirit are infectious and she will leave a lasting impression on those she touches.”

“I think if you picked a handful of athletes out of the entire Tulane athletic department, Mariam would be one of the most known,” Sisk said. “It’s because she never meets a stranger. She’s passionate, not just about tennis but about Tulane and about [New Orleans] coming back the right way.”

Women’s tennis was a key building block in the Tulane athletic department’s post-Katrina recovery.

Before Katrina, Tulane was a top-10 program that had made three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances (2003-05). After the entire athletic program was suspended for two years, Sisk was hired from Samford -- where she led that program to three Ohio Valley Conference titles and NCAA appearances in 2004 and '06 -- to restart the program. Women’s tennis and women’s golf were chosen to lead the way.

Sisk arrived in 2007 and had a year to recruit with a target date of returning to the court in the fall of 2008. Kurdadze is one of five seniors who Sisk now refers to as her Katrina class, a class that also includes Lindsay Dvorak, Marcela Fonseca, Caroline Gerber and Jessica Lange.

“A lot of people ask me, ‘What were you thinking?’ ” Sisk said.

“I wanted to be part of that [recovery]. There’s hardly any coaches who can say they started over a program that was hit by the most devastating [disaster].

2008 SOUTH OSSETIA WAR
Date Aug. 8-16, 2008
Location South Ossetia, Abkhazia, uncontested Georgia
Result • Russian / South Ossetian / Abkhazian victory
• Recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent republics by the Russian Federation and Nicaragua.
•  Expulsion of most ethnic Georgians from former South Ossetia AO and from the Kodori Gorge.
Territorial changes Georgia loses control over parts of Abkhazia (25 percent) and former South Ossetia AO (40 percent) it previously held.
Source: Wikipedia

“A lot of people said, ‘You’ve got your hands full.’ I do, but it’s a journey. And I get to meet kids like Miriam.”

The goal driving Kurdadze, her coach and teammates is to make what would amount to nothing less than a triumphant return to the NCAA tournament in May.

“I want this year to be special for the whole team,” Sisk said, “but mainly for those five seniors. They were the first to sign onto a team having never met their teammates.”

Kurdadze is doing her part. After a win Sunday against Southern, Kurdadze is 11-3 in singles (2-0 at No. 1 singles in dual matches) and 13-3 with junior Emma Levy in doubles (3-0 at No. 1 in dual matches) heading into a pair of dual matches Friday and Saturday with East Carolina and Central Florida in Orlando, Fla.

Kurdadze gives thought to playing in professional tournaments when she’s done at Tulane, as she did as a junior in Europe before coming to America. But Kurdadze’s heart won’t let her stray too far from the college scene.

She is set to enroll in Tulane’s business school this summer after a planned trip home (Kurdadze is hoping her mother can come see her play and attend her and Nikoloz’s graduations) and work with Tulane’s sports information department to help promote the tennis program.

The girl they call Miko has no doubts her life would have unfolded in a completely different and perhaps wildly unpredictable way had she not come to America to play tennis.

“I had to decide between playing tennis and studying,” Kurdadze said. “I would have probably gone to a local university, but back home you do one thing, and if you don’t like it you really don’t have another chance. You have to stick with it.

“Back home what most of my friends do is get married at 20. I’m not planning on doing that right now.”

Kurdadze is leaning toward working and staying in America. Sisk hopes that the girl she got to know through emails and video exchanges won’t stray too far.

“Whatever she does from here I know she’s going to be amazing,” Sisk said.

“It’s her upbringing. They were tough on her. She tells you stories about her junior coaches and the way they treated her and it’s a different mentality. She came here and it was like, ‘Nothing gets under my skin. I’m tough. That’s the way I was raised.’ And I appreciate her family and coaches for that, because they prepared her for the real world and to be so far from home.”