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“A Mental Giant”: Perez-Somarriba’s Journey to an NCAA Title

By Alex Schwartz
HurricaneSports.com

CORAL GABLES, Fla. To characterize the start of Estela Perez-Somarriba’s spring season as “slow” would be like describing summers in Miami as “warm.” An understatement, to say the least.

Following a splendid fall campaign that featured a prestigious Oracle/ITA Masters singles title, the University of Miami junior did not just lose to begin 2019, she did so twice.

Consecutively.

At home.

In straight sets.

For someone who had just one prior defeat at the Neil Schiff Tennis Center in her already illustrious career and had never lost back-to-back matches in the same season, the results were simply shocking.

Fast forward four-plus months, though, and there was Perez-Somarriba, sporting misty eyes and a wide grin befitting a national champion, hoisting the NCAA Singles Championship trophy above her head at the USTA National Campus in Orlando, Fla.

How about that for a turnaround?

“I had some doubts at the beginning of the season and they showed in my tennis,” Perez-Somarriba said. “After those matches, I decided to take it one match at a time, starting with better practices and a tougher mindset. I knew that I had to stay calm in order to perform at my highest level.”

She lost just one of her ensuing 32 completed matches the rest of the season after what turned out to be a mere blip on the radar for the best player in collegiate tennis.

“From those [first two] matches,” Perez-Somarriba added, “I learned that sometimes you have to analyze yourself and realize what you’re doing right or wrong. It’s not always going to go my way.” 

There was not much wrong from then on and basically everything did go her way. After dropping her first four sets of the spring, Perez-Somarriba won 63 of the final 69, posting a 31-1 record—one match was left unfinished—from Jan. 13 through May 25, when she claimed the national title.
 
Quite simply, Perez-Somarriba dominated collegiate tennis and had no equal.

“I think that there was a lot of growth for her as the season progressed. I think she started out a little rough, a little rusty,” Miami 18th-year head coach Paige Yaroshuk-Tews said. “It’s never easy when you’re a top player and you’ve had success and you’re coming back to defend that success. In her mind, I think it was not only a matter of defending, but a matter of improving from where she left off. I think she just matured a lot. And to say that—there’s not much room for improvement with a kid like her, but she improved.”

Including the fall campaign, Perez-Somarriba finished an eye-popping 43-5 overall, logging four more victories than any other player in the country and placing second on Miami’s single-season wins list. She went 28-4 against ranked players, including 19-2 versus top-50 opponents, 10-1 against top-25 foes and 5-0 against top-10 players.

A 24-1 record atop the lineup—featuring just four lost sets—further demonstrated Perez-Somarriba’s supremacy.

“I try not to focus on rankings or results. At [the number one] position, anybody can beat anybody and I never get surprised when there are some upsets in other matchups,” Perez-Somarriba said. “However, as I was playing more and figuring things out, I gained confidence. Every time I stepped on the court, I thought about which strength I had that my opponent didn’t. Match by match, I realized that I always had enough to beat any player. The mindset and the belief truly make the difference.”

Perez-Somarriba deservedly won ACC Player of the Year for the second season in a row and claimed both ITA All-America and First Team All-ACC accolades for the third straight season. She is just the eighth individual to repeat as ACC Player of the Year and the fifth three-time ITA All-American in singles in Miami’s memorable history.

The 5-foot-5 Madrid native became just the 30th player, including the fourth from the ACC, to reach the NCAA Singles Championship semifinals multiple times, as well as the ninth player ever to win the title after entering the tournament as the No. 1 seed.

Perez-Somarriba also improved to 12-2 in NCAA Singles Championship play, breaking the program record with a season of college still to go, a truly impressive feat.

“She’s been a mental giant since she got here and decided that she wanted to be great,” Yaroshuk-Tews said. “She’s always been looking to get better since day one and it accumulated into an incredible season.”

More rewarding than any of the accolades, however, is the way Perez-Somarriba climbed atop the college tennis ranks.

Sure, she is an incredible tennis player with footwork that would make a ballerina jealous, but her immense success goes far beyond that.

Perez-Somarriba’s drive to win is clear 365 days a year. It shows up in her diet, in her training, in her preparation, in her fitness and in nearly every other aspect of her life.

“I’ve never seen anything like it in all of my years and I don’t know that I’ll ever see anything like it ever,” Yaroshuk-Tews said. “She had one bad practice this year. One. And, when I say bad practice, she was tired; she had tests or something. She pushes us [as coaches] to be better. I’ve never felt that. Our level is pretty high. It’s unbelievable. I think she pushes everybody around her to be better.”

Perez-Somarriba is certainly internally motivated in a way few others are, but she attributes the development of her competitive mindset to those she grew up with.

One of her sisters, Carmen, is an architect. Another, Gabriela, is an engineer. The oldest, Enriqueta, is a concert pianist who flew to Orlando for the Final Four and, hours after the title match, seamlessly played a celebratory rendition of “We Are The Champions” on a hotel piano in her first time reading the music.

“I love winning and I hate losing. I am lucky that I have an amazing family that has taught me to always give my best in what I do,” Perez-Somarriba said. “My three older sisters have been an unbelievable example of overcoming obstacles and setting new goals. As the youngest of the family, I’ve always had to get the attention somehow and, I guess, all of this has been reflected in my personality and my performance on the tennis court.”

While Yaroshuk-Tews credits Perez-Somarriba for raising her level, the same can be said the other way around.

Her drive to succeed comes from her background and from within, but Perez-Somarriba credits Yaroshuk-Tews and Miami associate head coach Laura Vallverdu for helping make the NCAA title a “dream come true.”

“They’ve made me do drills that I didn’t like, but were beneficial to my tennis. They’ve pointed out any mistake they saw, on and off the court,” Perez-Somarriba said. “Even though sometimes it was tough to hear or implement, the truth is that they are right 99 percent of the time. Because of them, I’ve ended up achieving things that I could never imagine I was capable of doing. They’ve gone to battle with me hundreds of times and trusted me more than I did myself. I owe them everything.”

As one of just 60 women to ever play in the title match of the NCAA Singles Championship, Vallverdu, the 2009 runner-up, has a unique view of competing in the final contest of the tournament.

The only other two-time NCAA semifinalist in Miami history saw Perez-Somarriba do just what was needed to handle the pressure of playing for the trophy.

“Being in the final is not only tough physically, but emotionally. You get there tired and having fought really hard to be there for not only in the prior rounds, but prior months,” Vallverdu explained. “For any player that reaches the highest stake in a tournament, the goal is to get there having put a smart and efficient draw together. That is exactly what helped Estela. She is so meticulous and so well-prepared that it looked as though she thought of [everything each] step of the way, except maybe two or three things that happened during it. But even then, her grace and emotional intelligence took her to the next level. Her confidence was very high this past week.”

Perez-Somarriba’s mindset during this year’s tournament was also different than it was when she reached the semifinals in Athens, Ga., in 2017 or the Round of 16 in Winston-Salem, N.C., in 2018.

It was not just the experience from those events, but also her approach and mental state this time around.

“After the quarterfinals, [she told me] . . . ‘My freshman year, the tournament seemed bigger than me.’ And then she said that this year, she seemed bigger than the tournament,” Yaroshuk-Tews said. “She’s not being arrogant when she’s saying this, but she’s saying she feels in control of it, which I thought said a lot about kind of how she matured.”  

To claim the final prize, Perez-Somarriba had to twice do something she had gone over 18 months without doing: win after dropping the first set.

In both the Sweet 16 against No. 77 Paola Diaz-Delgado of VCU and the finale against second-ranked Katarina Jokic of Georgia, Perez-Somarriba lost the opener before rallying back for a win. She had lost each of the only other seven matches since the start of the 2018 calendar year in which she went down a set, but found an impeccable time to reverse the trend.

“After each of those sets, I knew that I hadn’t played the right tennis tactically,” Perez-Somarriba said. “Both of the scores were very tight, 6-4 and 7-6, so I knew that if I changed a few things, the momentum of the match would change in my favor. I felt fine fitness-wise, that wasn’t a problem. It was all about being open to change a couple of things in my game, refusing to lose and playing Miami [tennis and] Estela tennis.”

Yaroshuk-Tews first felt Perez-Somarriba had a chance to eventually win a national title in May 2017, when she reached the NCAA Final Four for the first time, then as an unseeded freshman. While much work had to be done, the ability and mentality were clearly there.

One part of her game that Yaroshuk-Tews felt Perez-Somarriba had to improve upon was her serve and she says the five-time ACC Player of the Week has done just that. It is fitting, then, that she clinched the national title with a serve that Jokic returned into the net, sealing the 7-6 (7-1), 6-2, 6-3 triumph.

The moment sent Perez-Somarriba to her knees before running to Yaroshuk-Tews for a teary-eyed embrace as the Miami faithful roared in the stands behind her.

“Sometimes, something happens that makes the world be perfect, if only for a few seconds. When that ball hit the net, the only things I felt were joy, excitement and, honestly, a bit of relief, as well,” Perez-Somarriba said. “I had dreamt about that exact moment since I committed to the University of Miami. All I thought was, ‘I made it, we made it.’ I felt like a champion. Without really knowing what I was doing, I ran into Paige as fast I could. Lau and Paige were playing with me, as well. They deserve it the same as I do. I think it was the most enjoyable sprint of my life. To get to the rewarding end, you have to fight through tough moments and when I hugged Paige, all of them made sense. The preparation paid off.”
 
Perez-Somarriba is the second national champion Yaroshuk-Tews has coached, as she also helped guide current Oklahoma head coach Audra Cohen to the crown in 2007.
 
For the two-time ITA Southeast Region Coach of the Year and UM Sports Hall of Fame member, the championship moment summed up the reason she is in this profession.
 
“With what I know that Stela has put into her tennis, that’s why I coach. It’s not for rankings,” Yaroshuk-Tews said. “It’s for moments like that because you see a young lady that has wanted that for three seasons . . . and worked so hard for [it, finally get there]. Honestly, that’s why I wake up every day and come to work, because that’s what sports is all about. There is no person more deserving, in my opinion. She blows my mind, she really does.”
 
While the final second of the final match may be the most memorable aspect of her remarkable 2018-19 campaign, Perez-Somarriba will remember it for much more than that.
 
“It was unreal; I have unforgettable memories. I learned more about myself, how important mindset is and to communicate with the people surrounding me,” Perez-Somarriba said. “I went through ups and downs, but always enjoyed my time with coaches, teammates, trainers and friends. I believe I embraced the culture of the program with my work ethic. I don’t think it can get any better than this. I can’t wait for more.”
 
It should come as no surprise that a competitor with Perez-Somarriba’s mindset is already prepared for more.
 
Boasting a 116-20 career record and a list of accomplishments longer than that of nearly any other player in college tennis history, she will return to Coral Gables in late June to begin her last hurrah as a Hurricane.
 
“Estela is an unassuming, low-key, humble [young lady who] absolutely loves tennis and improvement. She has trained herself for success and that makes her love the taste, she is relentless,” Vallverdu said. “She is so fun to coach because her growth doesn’t stop. I can’t wait to continue to grow with her and see her reach even higher levels of mastery on and off the court.”

What is higher than a national title? Fortunately for the Hurricanes, there is one more season left for Perez-Somarriba to answer that question.