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April 2009 Coming to America Elna de Villiers Mississippi State University Tennis Africa Namibia

Adjusting to college is never easy. Experiencing life in a new town with new friends, freedoms and expectations. It can be overwhelming for the typical 18-year-old. But imagine adding "new continent" to the equation. Nothing is familiar. You are immersed in a culture of people who don't think, act or talk like you, and you are forced to try a new cuisine at each meal.

Elna de Villiers

Year: Senior
Hometown: Grunau, Namibia (Africa)
Birth date: June 11, 1986

• Ranked second on the squad her freshman year with 26 total victories.
• Entered her senior season just two wins shy of 14th place on MSU's all-time career singles victories list.
That's the story of Elna de Villiers. One she has lived every day for the last four years.


Attending college in the United States had been de Villiers' dream since she was a child growing up in the small town of Grunau, located in the African country of Namibia. Raised on a sheep ranch on the outskirts of town, which is little more than a crossroads with a population of 400, de Villiers vividly remembers at age 12 setting her sights on American collegiate tennis.

Statistically, the feat is hard enough for American teenagers, much less those residing 8,000 miles across the globe. But it was a goal she felt compelled to pursue. So, racket in hand, she began her quest to become one of the best female tennis players in the country.

As a high school junior, de Villiers played for the Namibia Fed Cup team and later became a member of the Namibian International team. Before she knew it, she was being recruited to the U.S. by Mississippi State University Head Coach Tracy Lane, a native of South Africa.

The teenager's dream was coming true, and she embraced the chance. Despite her enthusiasm, though, de Villiers never could have predicted what life held for her once she arrived on foreign soil.


"My mouth was hanging open," de Villiers said when she first saw an oversized pick-up truck drive by campus. "It would have taken a ladder for me to get into it."

It was a drastic change from the smaller vehicles she'd seen in Africa. But de Villiers soon found her niche. With the majority of her MSU teammates being international as well, she wasn't alone in her cultural adjustment. Before long, she was enjoying what she assumed was the typical college life.

"My whole life, I always thought that if you go to college, the way to have fun is to go out to clubs and parties," said the senior, who entered her final tennis season in the top 15 on MSU's list of career singles victories. "We would go out on the weekends, and I was really not doing the right things I should have been."

De Villiers had attended church throughout her childhood and knew Jesus was the Savior, but she never had taken the step to make Him her Lord. She had not spent time in the Word developing a personal relationship with Christ and was ill-prepared to handle the temptations of her first semester in America.

It was a prime opportunity for divine intervention.

An invitation from one of the Bulldogs' football players spurred de Villiers to attend one of the weekly campus FCA Huddle meetings. She'd never heard of FCA but gave it a shot and enjoyed herself enough to return the following week. That's when life and purpose became crystal clear.

"...I realized that God had sent me here to America to be on the tennis team for a specific reason. All these other international girls didn't know Him."

"[MSU FCA Campus Director] Josh Gilreath was speaking about being 100 percent or 60 percent Christian," de Villiers said. "That night, I realized that God had sent me here to America to be on this tennis team for a specific reason. All these other international girls didn't know Him. They didn't grow up with Him and hadn't heard about Him like I did. And here I was doing the exact same things they were. So, I raised my hand that night to become 100 percent Christian."


As her spiritual journey began, de Villiers soon realized that the road wouldn't always be smooth. There would be potholes and speed bumps to overcome — a big one being homesickness. But God had already begun orchestrating a way to surround de Villiers with reminders of home.

Former FCA Area Representative Whitney Mathis had just started ministering to the female athletes on the Mississippi State campus when she met de Villiers, who was in her second semester at MSU. An immediate kinship developed when de Villiers realized Mathis had lived in her home country for two years as a missionary. They even discovered that de Villiers' cousin had given Mathis tennis lessons while in Africa.

"It is crazy how God brought us together," de Villiers said with a laugh. "She understood where I was from and knew my culture. She would cook African foods for me and was like a mom."

The two spent time having tea and talking about places they both had visited in Africa. Mathis also seized the opportunity to mentor and encourage de Villiers spiritually, especially when the young athlete wasn't seeing any fruit from her prayers for the salvation of her teammates, specifically her doubles partner, Martina Banikova.

De Villiers and Banikova had become close friends through their sport and had agreed as freshmen to room together their sophomore year. Once it was clear that Christ needed to be first, though, de Villiers took an active stand for her new life and chose not to room with Banikova. Seeing a conflict of lifestyle, she didn't want to put herself in an environment that would hinder her relationship with Christ.

De Villiers' choice drove a wedge in the middle of their friendship. It hurt them both, but de Villiers remained steadfast in her decision.

"I had to be straightforward with her," said de Villiers, who also serves on the FCA Huddle's leadership team. "My life had changed, and I couldn't be around that environment. She didn't talk to me for a long time after that."

Read how Elna de Villiers and Whitney Mathis feel American culture can benefit from the African way of life.

Mathis (far left) and de Villiers (second from right) with FCA's Alex Hagler, de Villiers' former roommate Bethany Workman and FCA's Ashlea Gilreath

Whitney Mathis:
"The thing I miss about Africa is the time they take for relationships. Christ was all about relationships, and I think if American Christians would focus more on taking time with people and less on our programs and numbers, things would change, one life at a time.

"If every believer were taking full advantage of impacting those few people they had in their inner circles, lives would change. Do the multiplication. If the process continues, thousands can be reached."

Elna de Villiers:
"Americans spend their time differently than Africans. We have a lot of tea times and spend more time just hanging out. Sundays after church we would always have a barbecue with friends. And later that afternoon, you wouldn't call your neighbor, because they would be sleeping. Some people in Africa take naps every afternoon. In America, everything goes so fast that you don't have time for naps. That has been the toughest adjustment. You just get worn out a lot easier here."

For the next two years, while the girls remained doubles partners, de Villiers prayed for her friend to understand the freedom she had found in Christ and that God would change Banikova's heart the same way He changed her own. She wanted so badly for Banikova to see Him living through her.

Without any positive signs of change, de Villiers became discouraged. She was unable to share her joy in Christ with Banikova without upsetting her. In Banikova's eyes, it was God who had taken her friend away.

De Villiers turned to Scripture for insight.

"I had to realize that there was nothing I could do for her," de Villiers said. "It would have to be Jesus working through me, and He has perfect timing with everything. Like Galatians 6:9 (NLT) says, 'So let's not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don't give up.' I couldn't change my teammate; it had to be God."


At the beginning of her senior year, de Villiers started to notice a spiritual shift. She knew God had something in store at MSU, and so did Mathis.

"We talked about this year being her last year at school," said Mathis, who now lives in Tennessee with her husband and three sons. "I told Elna that God was going to have something really big for her this year."

In September, de Villiers noticed that Banikova's resistance to God was softening. After experiencing several emotional blows all at once — her boyfriend of three years broke off their relationship and three family members passed away — Banikova began to struggle with depression and saw little hope in her life. Amidst the pain, she was open to listening to her teammate's encouragement.

De Villiers reached out to Banikova more than ever and tried to re-establish the broken friendship. Slowly, the wedge began to disappear.

"Elna wasn't pushing anything on me but just trying to be there for me as a friend," said Banikova, a native of Slovakia. "She was really patient with me, not trying to talk about God every time. But her trust in Him made me believe He was the One.

"I could see it on Elna's face every day," Banikova continued. "She was full of energy even if she was hurting or struggling. She always tried to encourage the girls on the team even if they were not believers. I could see the light in her eyes that she was living for the Lord."

De Villiers sensed that the timing was right to ask Banikova to attend FCA. Banikova agreed, hoping it would provide her with the same peace that de Villiers had. And in just one visit, Banikova felt at home.

"I felt comfortable around the people there, even though I was a sinner," Banikova said. "They were just there for me and didn't discourage me. There was something calling me to go back again."

In her second meeting, God once again used Gilreath to speak truth and change an athlete's life as he offered a chance for the students to find hope in the living God. All they had to do was open the door to Christ, and they would find more than enough support to carry them through the most troubling circumstances.

With her head bowed, eyes closed and heart racing, Banikova raised her hand and made a decision to surrender her life to Christ.

"I don't even know how my hand went up," she confessed. "It just happened."

In retrospect, Banikova sees how God used her struggles for His good.

"I could see it in her face every day," Martina Banikova (left) said of de Villiers (right). "I could see the light in her eyes that she was living for the Lord."

"If not for all the struggles, I probably would never have come to the Lord," she said. "When Elna and I were apart, I was on the top of everything. My life was amazing. I had tennis, a boyfriend — everything was great. Without the struggle I would not have realized my need for the Lord. And now, Elna and I can talk about everything. Our friendship is stronger than it was before. She is there for me every time I need her, encouraging me and showing me how God works."


It's a massive testimony for a girl who simply wanted to come to America to play tennis. Now, finishing her senior year this spring with a degree in business administration, de Villiers wants to extend her stay in the States so that she can continue reaching others for Christ.

"I was thinking that after this semester I could just go home, but that's not what God's plan is for me," de Villiers said. "I feel like He has called me into ministry to share what Jesus has done for me on the cross. And knowing that makes it easier to be far away from my family. I'm doing it for God, not for me."

--For more stories about faith and sport, visit, the official magazine of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. To subscribe to STV, click here.

Photos courtesy of Mississippi State Athletics, Elna de Villiers.

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