There’s an easy way to find Estela Perez-Somarriba on court.
“It’s her walk,” said her Miami Hurricanes women’s tennis coach, Paige Yaroshuk-Tews. “She has swagger in her walk.”
Perez-Somarriba, 18, has reason to strut.
On May 27, she became the first player in Hurricanes history to reach the NCAA singles national semifinals as a freshman. The Hurricanes’ women’s tennis program has produced 28 ITA All-Americans in its impressive history, but never one like this.
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Perez-Somarriba, a native of Madrid and a newly minted NCAA All-American, is only five-foot-five in a sport where many women are significantly taller.
But her size is no handicap.
“She’s built like a brick-house, so strong and explosive,” Yaroshuk-Tews said. “She hits balls so deep that’s it’s tough for opponents to play her.”
Perez-Somarriba, the youngest of four girls, does not come from an athletic background. Her father is an architecture professor, and her mother is an architect.
But Perez-Somarriba would rather play on a court with lines than draw them. When she was just 3 years old, she started hitting tennis balls off the family’s refrigerator door.
“My parents realized I loved tennis,” she said.
2015 Madrid Championship
A little over a decade later, Perez-Somarriba won the 2015 Madrid Championship, a national tournament for players ages 16 and under.
Her talents soon caught the attention of Miami associate head coach Laura Vallverdu, a native of Venezuela who has deep family ties in Spain.
The Miami staff won the recruiting battle, beating out schools such as Vanderbilt, Georgia Tech and Texas. And once Perez-Somarriba arrived in Coral Gables, Yaroshuk-Tews recognized her freshman’s special qualities.
“Behind closed doors, I’ve been saying since September that she’s a little superstar,” Yaroshuk-Tews said.
What her coach saw in her was perhaps the most respectful person she has ever coached — “zero drama” — and an incredibly hard worker.
Yaroshuk-Tews kept waiting for her to have a bad day in practice, but it never happened. Not on the court at least.
Off the court, the coach saw her freshman struggle with the adjustment to college. New language, new culture, far from home — none of it easy.
“I told (Vallverdu), ‘You make sure this kid doesn’t get out of your sight because she’s special,’” Yaroshuk-Tews said. “Culturally, those two have so much in common — they became like sisters.
“Estela would have blossomed either way. But I give (Vallverdu) credit because she accelerated things.”
Vallverdu, one of the greatest players in Hurricanes history and the program’s leader in wins at the time she graduated in 2010, said she started calling and texting Perez-Somarriba.
Sometimes they would meet up for coffee. But, always, Vallverdu was there to impart wisdom. She gave her inspiring quotes to read. She showed her tennis videos. She was in her pupil’s head, day in and day out.
The plan worked, and Perez-Somarriba responded with a stellar 34-7 record this season that included a 5-1 record against opponents ranked among the top 30 in the nation.
Yaroshuk-Tews said her fabulous freshman is a “little Fashionista”, and it’s a label Perez-Somarriba doesn’t deny.
“I like being fancy,” she said, “dressing fancy.”
Dressed for success, Perez-Somarriba was still only ranked No. 40 in the nation when the NCAA singles championships began on May 24 at Athens, Georgia.
She was set to be a major underdog in the opening round against a player from Vanderbilt, Astra Sharma, who was ranked No. 4.
But Sharma withdrew just hours before the match. Yaroshuk-Tews called Perez-Somarriba at 11 p.m. that night to let her know she would be facing a new opponent who was nowhere near as good in the rankings.
Perez-Somarriba, who was already wide awake and nervous about her match scheduled for the next morning at 8 a.m., took the call.
“Now I was the favorite, and that made me even more nervous,” said Perez-Somarriba, who has been known to give herself a pep talk in front of a bathroom mirror. “Now I was expected to win.”
Perez-Somarriba won’t say what time she got to bed that night, but admits it was after 3 a.m. as she kept thinking about “tennis, her feelings, the season.”
As it turns out, Perez-Somarriba had no reason to be nervous. She played five matches in five days, and she made a name for herself in college tennis.
Here’s how it went:
▪ On May 24, she beat No. 64 Ana Oparenovic of Arkansas 1-6, 6-1, 6-1. Nervous and operating on little sleep, Perez-Somarriba lost the first five games. After that, she won 13 of the final 16 games.
▪ On May 25, she beat No. 27 Arianne Hartono of Mississippi 6-4, 6-3. Perez Somarriba won 12 of the final 17 games.
▪ On May 26, she beat No. 47 Mia Horvit of South Carolina 6-4, 5-7, 6-1. Perez-Somarriba blew a 5-2 lead in the second set but recovered.
▪ On May 27, she beat No. 26 Kate Fahey of Michigan 6-4, 6-3. It was Perez-Somarriba’s 15th consecutive win and made her the only player from the ACC to reach the semifinals.
▪ On May 28, her run ended with a 6-1, 5-7, 6-3 loss to No. 6 Belinda Woolcock of Florida. Woolcock was the second-highest-ranked player Perez-Somarriba played all season.
Even so, Perez-Somarriba showed fight, battling back from a 5-1 deficit to win the second set.
“Remarkable,” Yaroshuk-Tews said.
Perez-Somarriba, asked to assess her freshman year, needed a few moments to reflect.
“Woo, good question,” she said. “I think it’s been an unbelievable season.”