The much-maligned tennis rankings may not be perfect, but its 52-week system does allow for the truly talented, like American Maria Sanchez, to make up for lost time in a big way.
The University of Southern California grad (’11) has an all-court game and, at 5’10”, strikes an imposing figure at the net. In her first full year on the WTA Tour, Sanchez was the impact player of the 2012 rankings, jumping up an astounding 560 spots to end the year at No. 127 in the world, earning herself a place in this week’s Australian Open Wildcard Playoffs in Norcross, GA.
Despite her quick escalation up the rankings, Sanchez admitted in an interview with Tennis Grandstand that there is still “a long way to go,” and her mentality will undoubtedly prove an invaluable aspect of that success.
“I tried not to focus on expectations; I knew my potential and knew I could have a good year… but none of my results this year seemed unreachable.”
A good year on the ITF circuit may not seem so impressive to a young woman with big dreams, but the three-time All-American (in singles and doubles) has a lot to be proud of. In only 12 months, Sanchez has gone from college star to the precipice of professional stardom.
Precious few college stars transition well into the professional ranks, something Sanchez attributes to the tour’s physical and mental grind.
“The pro level is a step up in every aspect … There aren’t any easy matches and everyone seems to be tougher physically and mentally. They’re stronger, more experienced and more consistent.”
Yet, unlike many standout junior players forced into making a decision between playing in college first or going pro, for Sanchez, a professional career was always the plan. And she views her years in college as a help, not a hindrance.
“I would not trade those four years for anything. Growing up, it was always part of the plan to go to college, get my diploma and then turn pro.” She joked further, “Now I just need to make up for the hours I missed out on while I was in college!”
Rising players would be lucky to find dedicated and experienced mentors, so Sanchez’s own confidence was boosted when one of the sport’s biggest names took her under her wing. Among the people Sanchez impressed during a stint with World TeamTennis last summer? None other than living legend Chris Evert, who extended the young American an invitation to train at the Evert Academy in Boca Raton. Evert’s help, Sanchez believes, has been an invaluable asset to her success.
“Not only has [Chris] been a mentor to me but she has also been a great friend as well this past year. She gives me great advice on mental toughness and helps me get in the right mindset for matches. She tells me to focus on being calm and to always be confident and to compete in every point.”
Although Sanchez notes that her best memory on tour was winning her first title, the $50K Sacramento in May, she is quick to also recount her experience of playing in her first Grand Slam at the 2012 U.S. Open.
Getting a direct entry into the qualifying tournament, Sanchez made a splash by taking out a seed ranked almost 100 points higher than her at the time and made it to within one match of the main draw. In doubles, she paired up with good friend Irina Falconi and nearly took out the Olympic Bronze medalists Nadia Petrova and Maria Kirilenko, losing 7-5 in the third set. But for Sanchez, it was less about the results, and more about the moment.
“I had a great first experience at the U.S. Open. I was really just trying to soak in everything I could. It was a great atmosphere and I stayed there all day to watch and learn … It’s easy to get overwhelmed in a busy and exciting atmosphere like that, but it’s important to stay in the moment and focus on doing your job.”
Looking ahead, Sanchez seems wary of the potential – pardon the pun – “sophomore slump,” and is far from complacent as she prepares for 2013. Practicing around four hours a day in addition to fitness training, Sanchez sees her freshman year on the WTA as her launch pad.
“I think being at 127 after my first year just showed me that I’m on the right path and have the potential to do really well. So I’m just looking at that ranking as an encouragement to get further up in the rankings.”
Moving from one sphere of tennis to another can be difficult at best and spirit-crushing at worst. The skills required are ostensibly the same, but the ability to adapt to new surroundings is key. Over the years, it has seemed as if only a select few could pair a college education with professional success, and even those few are looked on as those who could have achieved more without that collegiate albatross.
If all that is true, then Maria Sanchez is a veritable chameleon. The rankings alone would belie a young woman who went to sleep a college student and woke up as a top 200 tennis player. To be sure, the metamorphosis hasn’t been completely organic; with the help of agent Jordan Butler and Agent Atleta, the American has entered the social media circuit, (arguably a scary world for the admittedly shy Sanchez), and certainly looks the part of a seasoned pro thanks to sponsorships with Nike and Babolat.
But Sanchez remembers where she came from, and that she still has enough of — to borrow a line from rapper T.I. — “the swagger of a college kid.” And while the college route has broken so many of her peers, it just might be the very thing that helps her make it. As she begins her life in the real world, there are no doubts, no “What if’s?” that tease your typical college graduate.
For Sanchez, everything is still going according to plan.
UPDATE: Unfortunately, Maria has been forced to withdraw from the Australian Open Wild Card Playoffs. Full story here.