Even in a loss, Santamaria has the experience of her life
By Steve Kelley, USA Team Columnist
KAZAN, Russia (July 16, 2013) – Standing in the hot summer sun behind the bleachers at Kazan’s Tennis Academy the overwhelming personal importance of Sabrina Santamaria’s World University Games experience finally caught up with her.
Hugging a couple of rackets to her chest as if they were family heirlooms, waiting for the medal ceremony to begin, the singles silver medalist began to cry, apologizing as she wiped the tears from her face.
“Those tears were pride mixed with joy and happiness,” her coach West Nott said. “We’ve been soaking in all of this experience.”
Santamaria lost Tuesday’s morning’s gold medal match to Japan’s Suchie Ishzu 6-2, 7-5, but she certainly owed no one an apology.
“I’m just so happy I had the opportunity to be here and play here,” she said. “I really don’t want to leave. This has been a really special moment for me.”
After losing the first set 6-2 and trailing 5-0 in the second set, Santamaria found her game. She started moving Ishzu around the court, forcing her to hit harder. As Santamaria began to claw her way into the match, the crowd, which almost filled the stands at the 1,000-set Academy, started chanting, “Sa-bri-na. Sa-bri-na.”
“That really got me pumped,” she said. “The crowd kind of carried me through that 5-1 deficit. It was really special. The atmosphere here was just so different from what I’m used to in college tennis. There were so many people. I’ve never played in front of a crowd that was like this. There were a lot of people pulling for me today, even the Russians. This was something really special and I don’t think I’ll ever experience something like this again.
“I have some friends who are swimmers who have competed in the World University Games before and they told me that this was a really big deal. It really is a special event, like the second largest event next to the Olympics. I’m really honored to be here and it’s an incredible honor to be able to stand up there on the podium.”
Sabrina Santamaria isn’t a child of the tennis academies. She didn’t leave home to hit balls at Bolletieri’s school in Florida. She didn’t learn the game at some expensive, exclusive club.
She is a product of Los Angeles’ public courts. Her father didn’t drop her off for lessons with some high-profile coach. He joined her, bringing a bucket of tennis balls and hitting with her for hours as she tirelessly pleaded with him for just a few more rallies.
Santamaria learned the game by playing against men her father’s age. Older men who played the game creatively, feathering drop shots that died and spun back toward the net when they hit the court, working her side to side with an assortment of slices and topspin lobs. They taught her to think the game as well as play it.
“One of the things I love about Sabrina is her upbringing,” said Nott, who has been working with her for two years at USC. “She played in a park in L.A. and just played with a bunch of old guys around the park. I think that’s where she developed a lot of her touch.
“She didn’t get dropped off at some country club. It was just her and her dad playing a ton of practice matches. It wasn’t like she was the superstar recruit by any means. There were a lot of kids ahead of her, but she really maxed out.”
Santamaria admitted to a case of nerves early in the match. She had difficulty adjusting to Ishzu’s ball. She was broken twice in the first four games and scored only four total points in those games.
“I’m just really proud of her,” Nott said. “The way she fought out there today. She was not having her best day, but she found a way to be competitive and give herself a chance. That’s all you can ask for. We honestly had no idea what to expect before we got here and to see her compete and to see the depth of the field and see her dig down and give the big dogs here a run for their money was great.”
Santamaria is an anomaly in this age of women’s tennis, where the players are 6-feet and taller and play a game analyst Mary Carillo dubbed “Big Babe Tennis.” It started with players such as Lindsay Davenport and Mary Pierce and has continued with Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova.
But Santamaria is 5-foot-2, a scatback in a game that seems more and more designed for long, tall thumpers. But Nott says Santamaria compensates for her size disadvantage with her speed and court awareness. He believes she can compete with the 6-foot knockout punchers.
“I think since the generation of Sharapova and Serena Williams began, the young kids try to emulate that style, but not every player is 6-foot-1 and 170 pounds and just crushing the ball,” Nott said. “Sabrina doesn’t really have those things, but what I love about her is that she uses her assets, her speed, her great mind, her variety, just savviness around the court. She’s been successful like that. She just sees the court in a different way.”
Santamaria and her USC doubles partner Kaitlyn Christian are the most successful team in college tennis history. They have won four national championships. They’ve lost only one collegiate match since 2012 and because they are national champions, they have earned berth into the main draw at the U.S. Open in New York next month. They play a unique style of doubles, including standing two back when serving.
“It’s hard to prepare for,” Nott said. “It’s like preparing for Tim Tebow.”
Nott said he thinks that team could become dominant like the Bryan Brothers in men’s tennis. He also believes Santamaria can become a Top-50 singles player.
“I believe in her. I think she can be a tour player,” said Nott, who also has coached tour player Maria Sanchez. “Sabrina is right at Maria’s level, if not better. No one plays like her. You just can’t find players like her running around on the streets and I think that’s going to help make her successful. And don’t be fooled, she packs a wallop for her size. She just keeps winning. She’s been winning ever since she arrived on campus.”
The winning continued in Russia. The silver medal around her neck was glittering proof of that.