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How Rams long snapper Alex Ward and pro tennis player girlfriend Angela Kulikov support each other in their respective sports

Angela Kulikov remembers being in France for the French Open. Generally, you're supposed to stick around for it straight through to Wimbledon since the turnaround is so quick, she said – usually you're in Europe for three weeks, with the turnaround to Wimbledon being another three weeks, while also switching surfaces from clay to grass.

All told, participants are supposed to be in Europe 6-8 weeks in a row.

"And the biggest downfall of my career is that I'm a huge homebody," said Kulikov, who played collegiately at the University of Southern California. "So I absolutely refused to stay in Europe for that long."

She came home from the French Open for a week because she needed a break. Just one problem: All of her practice partners followed the norm of staying in Europe and were still there, which meant she did not have one when she came home.

So she posted on her Instagram story one day that she was in Los Angeles and asked if anyone in L.A. was available to hit some balls with her that week.

Rams long snapper Alex Ward replied to it and volunteered to be their hitting partner. And that is how the two of them met.

"He wasn't my hitting partner, actually," Kulikov said. "We golfed."

"Yeah, she had another actual hitting partner, and then she offered to play with me, and I was like, 'I'm no tennis player. You are a tennis star, you don't want to hit with me," Ward said. "(She said), 'yeah, you're right.' I was already going golfing with (Rams punter) Ethan (Evans) and (former Rams kicker) Tanner Brown, and so I was like, 'just come golf with us.' She did."

While the origin of their relationship was Ward offering to be Kulikov's hitting partner, and then not hitting with her, he does that today. That support actually works both ways, and remains an important part of their relationship.


"He was a lot better (at tennis) than I thought"

Kulikov remembers Ward sending her a few photos of his forehand – "where I can tell he was kind of legit" – but she didn't really know what level of tennis player he was until they got on the court when she came home from Wimbledon.

"He was a lot better than I thought," she said.

What Kulikov probably didn't know beforehand was that Ward had actually started playing tennis in fourth grade.

He said his older sister had joined the middle school team, and being the little brother, he wanted to be better than her "immediately."

Ward said he worked "really hard and got really good," taking lessons with his sister and working his way up. A native of Fort Walton Beach, Florida, he became one of the top players in the area and the county.

"I was the best, if not top two or three in the county back home," Ward said.

He got so good at it, he said he actually stopped playing football for his high school his junior year to focus on tennis full-time.

"And I got out of my little bubble where I was the best, South Florida, and I went to Texas and Atlanta, and I got my butt kicked," Ward said. "So I was like, 'Hmm, maybe I should go back to this football thing.'"

"I always tell him that quitting football for tennis is the dumbest thing I've heard," Kulikov adds, as Ward laughs in the background.

Obviously, that decision worked out well for Ward. He walked on to the University of Central Florida's football program in 2017, earned a full scholarship in 2019 and received All-America recognition for his performance in 2021 and 2022 before signing with the Rams as an undrafted free agent last year.

And he's still getting to put those tennis lessons to use.

Ward would come out to the courts with Kulikov, and since she plays doubles, he could fill in as "this additional net person for me," she said. In the process, he helped strengthen what she said was one of the biggest weaknesses in her game.

"He also has an absolutely massive serve. Like, we're talking an ATP-level serve," Kulikov said, referring to the professional men's tour for tennis. "The biggest hole in my game was actually my return, so I would just drag him out and he would serve buckets and buckets of balls to me. And my return got so much better from that. So he's been great in that department."


Returning the favor

With Ward stepping up to help her with her training and contributing to her improvement, she wanted to reciprocate and help him with his training.

"The joke between us is how much I love football and how much he loves tennis," she said.

"Or we're just really good at the other's sport," he said.

So she volunteered to catch his snaps.

"I had no idea how fast the snap was," Kulikov said. "Like, I kind of grew up playing football at recess and coached my younger brother, and he's a high school school senior quarterback, so I had always dabbled in that world, but I didn't realize that snaps come in at like 35-to-40 miles per hour. So it was a small learning curve handling (those)."

Ward said he taught her to snap because he didn't need her to catch in-season. Kulikov was an eager student.

"She immediately wanted to pick up on, 'How do you snap? How do you snap?' I was like, 'Well...'. We got her kind of down (with it). She's still not very good," Ward said as Kulikov laughed.

So, she's good enough that if he's in a pinch in the offseason and needs someone to practice his snaps with, she can get by and get the job done?

"Yeah, so now in the offseason, we go to the facility or we go to whatever field, and she can catch just fine," Ward said. "And then she's trying to learn how to hold. You can ask Ethan, it's a very difficult thing to do. She doesn't have the setting-the-ball-down down yet, but she has the catch and the frame, where to catch it all, set. She can tell me where my laces are when it comes in and everything."

"As long as I have gloves, I'm good enough to be what he needs," Kulikov said. "If don't have gloves, we're risking my career on every snap as well."

"Not your career," Ward interjects. "Just your fingers."

"My joke is kind of, when you play doubles you're at net, and I spend a lot of time at net, where they're firing balls at me 70-80 miles an hour, so I need that hand-eye stuff as well," Kulikov continued. "Even me just catching his snaps for him is, in a weird way, kind of good off-court training for me as well. I don't think anyone else on tour is doing that kind of training."

For Ward, there's not quite as much of a carryover effect onto the field other than quick use of his feet. After Kulikov hits a serve, she tries to get back behind the baseline, and Ward realizes that's exactly what he does with snapping – "I gotta snap, let the ball fly, and then just get back as fast as I can."

"So there's a little bit of a crossover, but snapping is such an un-athletic thing, right?" Ward said. "Not many things help me snap better."


Mutual respect, and living out childhood dreams

Kulikov calls it an "extraordinary" position she and Ward are in as two people who get to sit there and say they made their childhood dreams come true, but also live through each other's alternate dream as well.

The International Tennis Federation (ITF) circuit effectively serves as the minor leagues for pros in the sport. Once a player crack the Top 100, you move up to the major leagues – play a WTA schedule. Last year was Kulikov's first year she had broken on to the WTA tour.

"So last year for me, that was my first time playing at all four Grand Slams," Kulikov said, referring to the four major tournaments (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, U.S. Open). "And it was fun that Alex kind of got to be a part of that. I remember being at Wimbledon, and for half of it, I FaceTimed him at Wimbledon and showed him the ground there. And luckily with the schedules, I was even able to be home and I was able to go to his first preseason game."

Both are learning a lot about their respective sports – in different and surprising ways, too.

The morning after they all went golfing together, Kulikov went to Europe for another few weeks. When she returned, they went on a few more dates and were officially together by the time she went to the U.S. Open.

This happened to coincide with the second day of roster cuts for the Rams, which Ward was keenly aware of because his roommate, offensive lineman Sean Maginn, had gotten a phone call the morning before at 5:45 a.m. that head coach Sean McVay wanted to meet with him and to bring his iPad.

Kulikov said she had asked Ward about how they cut players, which Ward then told her about the 5:45 a.m. phone call.

"The next morning, I wake up to a phone call at 5:47 a.m., and immediately – I mean, I take the late bus to the facility. I woke up at like, 6:15," Ward said. "So I wake up to this phone call, and I'm like, 'No way. There's no shot.' Blurry, just grab my phone in a frenzy, my heart peaks immediately. I'm like, 'I'm getting cut, oh my gosh.'

"I answer it, it's a FaceTime from her, and she's standing in the middle of center court at the U.S. Open. She goes, 'Hey, didn't think you were going to answer, but I just wanted to show you center court!'"

First, some important context: Kulikov was hitting on Arthur Ashe Stadium, a perk that the tour can do for the Americans. It's one of the biggest courts in the world, so naturally, she wanted to share her excitement about the moment with Ward. Initially, she was going to send him a video, but after seeing she had received a text message from him, she thought he was awake already, and decided to give him a call. She knew the timing would be "super early," but figured he had a weight lifting session at the facility. And, as far as she was concerned, cut day was the day before.

"But when he picks up his phone, he's all red-faced, eyes are just like popping out of his head," Kulikov said. "And I'm like, 'Are you okay?' He goes, 'No, no, I'm fine,' and didn't tell me until afterwards.

"I just meant to show him something cool I was doing, and I gave him the worst seven seconds of his life," she said as they both laughed.

Ward, meanwhile, has learned that "I never had a shot at playing tennis in the first place."

"The girls on tour are kicking my butt," he said. "The tennis world is crazy and brutal. It's a rough life."

For Ward, the best part about their relationship is living their childhood dreams through the other person.

"Like, never in a million years did I think would ever even attend Indian Wells, and here I am, I mean, not really certified, but I have a credential as a WTA player assistant and I have a backstage pass. I went to the U.S. Open, same deal," he said. "It's kind of cool. And then, being the quarterback nerd she is, she gets to come down on game days and see Matthew (Stafford) throw, imagine herself right on the field throwing to Puka (Nacua). So living our dreams through the other."

For Kulikov, it's also great because there was already so much mutual respect for one another, but because each of them have a true behind-the-scenes perspective of the work it takes for each other to be successful, they can understand, relate to and support each other on a deeper level.

"All that and much more," she said. "So it makes everything that much more special and much more fun to share, to live our dreams and share our dreams at the same time."

Above all else, the biggest reason their relationship works is because neither has gotten bored of experiencing the other's sport yet.

Ward said Kulikov used to come with him and hang out while he was snapping for two hours, and he would hang out on the court while she was practicing. They also both admit they're "huge nerds" about their respective sport.

"We both dissect and evaluate and analyze every bit," Kulikov said.

Kulikov went to Lambeau Field for the Rams' road game against the Packers last November, made possible by having a tournament somewhere nearby in Midland, Michigan that ended right before that road trip to Green Bay. One of her coaches, Jake, is a big football fan, and told her they had to make the drive to one of the NFL's most historic stadiums.

One of Ward's snapping coaches happened to be at the game, so he and Jake got the chance to meet each other.

"And they were just cracking up because Casey (Alex's snapping coach) made some comment about how Alex will call him sometimes and just be like, 'I don't know, I think if I do this a little differently or if I change the angle,' or just starts going into some crazy ridiculous technical analysis," Kulikov said. "And my coach, Jake, listens to that from me constantly.

"And so he turned to me, looks at me and goes, 'I understand why this relationship works so well.'"

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