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"Special" Night for Perez-Somarriba, Gauff

By Christy Cabrera Chirinos

Match HighlightsPerez-Somarriba Press Conference | Gauff Press Conference | Perez-Somarriba ACCN Interview
There was a moment, late in the match, that Estela Perez-Somarriba looked up, smiled and used her racquet to acknowledge a small but very vocal cheering section.
“That’s my team,” the NCAA’s reigning singles champion just before serving the ball to one of professional tennis’ rising young stars.
Across the net, Coco Gauff smiled. And moments later, Perez-Somarriba notched a point.
Gauff, the world’s No. 51-ranked player and a longtime Miami Hurricanes fan, would go on to win the set and eventually, the hour-long exhibition match 6-3, 6-3. But there was little doubt Saturday night that both she and Perez-Somarriba enjoyed the experience of lightheartedly competing in the first women’s tennis match ever played at the Delray Beach Open.
“This was such a cool experience. I’m really, really thankful. The crowd today was amazing. Even though Coco is from here, I think they were so supportive and I had so much fun. … They made this experience even more amazing,” Perez-Somarriba said. “As an international player, this meant a lot to me. And my team was there supporting me. I could feel them in every single point. My teammates, my coaches, the whole department, I’m just really, really thankful. Go Canes, always. They’ve been my family for the last [few] years and if I’m sitting here today, it’s because of them. I’m just happy they were able to see me competing and having fun, smiling.
“I don’t think I’ve ever smiled that much on a tennis court, honestly.”
Said the 15-year-old Gauff, “It felt great. I felt like it was picture-perfect that the Delray native got to play a University of Miami student. It was pretty local for both of us and I’m glad. It seemed like both of us had fun. Her team was here so that was pretty cool to see.”
The idea to bring Gauff and Perez-Somarriba together began brewing last summer, not long after Perez-Somarriba won her national title and Gauff captured the attention of tennis fans worldwide with her remarkable run at Wimbledon.
Tournament directors, brothers Mark and Ivan Baron, wanted to find a way to have Gauff play in front of her hometown fans at the ATP event. When it came time to find her a potential opponent, they reached out to longtime friend, Hurricanes coach Paige Yaroshuk-Tews, whom they knew had a national champion on her roster.
With the NCAA’s approval, the match was set up and Saturday night, an announced crowd of 5,544 cheered as Perez-Somarriba and Gauff returned drop shots, notched aces and engaged in more than a few spirited rallies that left both players smiling.
For Gauff, the match came weeks after a run at the Australian Open that ended just shy of the quarterfinals. For Perez-Somarriba, it came less than 24 hours after a win at Georgia Tech.
Still, despite the quick turnaround, Perez-Somarriba more than held her own, returning more than a few of Gauff’s 108-miles-per-hour serves and putting down a handful of points that drew not only cheers from the Hurricanes in the stands, but applause from Gauff herself.
“I feel like people don’t understand that it’s a big deal. [Perez-Somarriba’s national championship] is something I’ll never be able to do. It was pretty cool to play her,” Gauff said. “I think it was a long three-setter, her final-round match [in the NCAA Singles Tournament], I watched the final set and [when] she fell to her knees, that kind of reminded me of that moment when I won my first junior slam. She’s going to go pro, so I’m sure I’ll probably see her and probably play her again. … She has a bright future. She’s already doing well. I’m sure I’m going to see her on tour … probably next year.”
That isn’t out of the realm of possibility. But for now, Perez-Somarriba is determined to finish her final year at Miami on a positive note.
She and the Hurricanes are set to host fourth-ranked Florida State at the Neil Schiff Tennis Center on Monday. And beyond that, the senior has hopes of defending her title before taking the next step of her career.
“I have a lot to learn, but this experience helped. Definitely, I think I’m going to be able to play more of these matches and improve my tennis moving forward and I’m really excited about that,” Perez-Somarriba said. “I think being out there with that big crowd, maybe next time, I’ll be more used to it. And then, I think I’m able to face any player. This gives me strength and confidence and tells me I can do this, while still improving a lot. … That’s special.”
Added Yaroshuk-Tews, “This means a lot. I was just sitting up there. I couldn’t believe it. Four years ago, she’s coming from Spain and trying to figure out college tennis and tonight she’s playing Coco on a big stage. It’s a good feeling, a good feeling. … Stela can play. We know Stela can play. And we respect Coco. That was a pretty solid match.”