It took current University of Miami national champion Estela Perez-Somarriba seven match points to defeat Georgia Bulldog Katarina Jokic last May for the NCAA women’s singles tennis title.
It will take Perez-Somarriba, whose family is being isolated back home in COVID-19-ravaged Madrid, Spain, a lot longer to decide whether to return to the Hurricanes for an extra year of NCAA-granted eligibility in 2020-21 — or turn pro.
“Things are a little crazy right now,’’ Perez-Somarriba said Monday from her campus apartment in a phone interview with the Miami Herald. “The situation in Europe is pretty dangerous. Honestly, I’m fine. I’m just trying to understand what’s going on. There’s a lot of uncertainty.
“At this point I am waiting to see the details of this extra year and how it will work. I’m really happy I have the opportunity to choose, but I’m not sure what I’m going to do. After this season and graduation and the NCAA tournament I was going to play professionally, but that was before this crazy virus took over the world. Whatever I choose will be the best decision for me.’’
Perez-Somarriba, who has a 3.93 GPA (she has two B’s in her academic career, including one when her final average was 89.8 in an elective about athletic injuries) is among hundreds of seniors nationwide pondering their futures after the NCAA canceled all spring sports and corresponding championships because of the coronavirus. If she returned, she would likely be taking graduate-level courses.
The NCAA announced March 13 that “council leadership agreed that eligibility relief is appropriate for all Division I student-athletes who participated in spring sports. Details of eligibility will be finalized at a later time.’’
On March 20, the NCAA announced that “the full Division I Council will discuss and vote on eligibility relief for student-athletes whose seasons were impacted by COVID-19 and other related issues March 30.
“In principle, the coordination committee agrees relief should be extended to spring sport student-athletes and supports providing schools with a framework in which they have the autonomy to make their own decisions in the best interest of their campus, conference and student-athletes.”
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UM athletic director Blake James described Perez-Somarriba as a “first-class person’’ and told the Herald last week that “obviously the scholarships are paid for by the institutions. Not knowing where that’s going to land, I wouldn’t want to make a statement other than if they’re a member of a program and they’re on scholarship, as any member of a program, it’s going to be an institutional cost to cover the scholarship.’’
UM women’s tennis coach Paige Yaroshuk-Tews, now with her family working from home, keeps in contact with her players and told the Herald she has not asked her champion about her decision. “We all have to respect what’s happening in the world and understand there are bigger things right now than hitting a tennis ball,’’ Yaroshuk-Tews said. “I love the kid like she is one of my own and she knows that. She knows, I know, everybody knows that of course I’d like to see her come back. But I want her to make a decision she’s going to be happy with and that is in the best interest of her future.’’
Perez-Somarriba, 21, is majoring in economics and minoring in sports administration. She was supposed to graduate May 9, with her family originally scheduled to arrive in Miami this Thursday to watch her play on Senior Day. “Obviously they’re not coming,’’ she said. “But my family is OK. We’ve been face-timing a lot by phone. I just started my online classes and I look forward to finishing my classes this semester.
“My graduation just got postponed to Dec. 19.’’
Perez-Somarriba is 141-23 in UM singles matches, the most wins in program history. That includes a 100-11 mark in spring competition, a 75-7 mark in dual matches, a 42-5 record in Atlantic Coast Conference play and a 71-16 record against ranked players.
Factors to consider
A serious, laser-focused athlete whose groundstrokes are lethal from both sides, Perez-Somarriba, at 5-5 and 129 pounds undersized for an elite player, admittedly needs to improve her serve among other parts of her game. Among the factors she must weigh in her decision include what’s happening in Madrid, where more than 33,089 have the coronavirus, with 5,000 new cases reported this past Saturday alone, and where the death toll hit 2,182 on Monday.
She also has to consider what’s happening on the WTA Tour, which is suspended until at least June 7. The Hurricanes were supposed to play a match April 3 on the outlying courts at the Miami Open.
“It would have been pretty exciting,’’ said Perez-Somarriba, who already played then-World No. 51 Coco Gauff in February in an exhibition at the Delray Beach Open, with an announced crowd of 5,500. Gauff won 6-3, 6-3.
If she returns to UM for the 20-21 academic year, Perez-Somarriba will not only have her education paid for by the school, she will have everything from massage therapists, physical therapists and nutritionists at her disposal, with an extra year to improve. If she turns pro she will start from the bottom and have to rely on possible sponsorships, family financial backing and any personal savings to go toward training.
“She’s a kid who has taken advantage of every single thing,’’ Yaroshuk-Tews said. “And she’s remarkable. Of course we’d love to keep players like Stella for 10 years, but part of coaching is it all ends at some point. This situation is bizarre, and it’s totally going to be up to her.
“If she walks away today she’s an absolute champion. If she comes back, let’s try to make it even more special. I don’t even look at it as ‘How could Stella come back to help my team?’ I look at it as how my responsibility to her changes even more.”
‘We Are The Champions’
Perez-Somarriba’s 28-year-old sister, Enriqueta, is the only other family member living in the United States. A concert pianist, Enriqueta is lecturing and working toward her doctorate in musical arts at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Together, the two performed an impromptu rendition of Queen’s “We Are The Champions” at a hotel piano in Orlando the day the younger sister won the national title.
“I was sight-reading off my phone because I never played that before,’’ Enriqueta said, laughing. “It was so much fun.’’
Enriqueta said she talks to Estela daily and is very proud of how she is handling her situation. “The evolution since she came to Miami has been astonishing,’’ the older sister said. “I always knew she was a strong, very self-driven girl. But the maturity she has achieved in the past three-and-a-half years has been impressive.
“People are in heartbreaking situations now, but health is always at the top of everyone’s priorities. I’ve been advising her to wait a bit on making a decision because every day the news is changing. We need perspective and we’re reading the New York Times and Spanish newspapers all at once.
“Stela is well advised by her coach. She’s always had great intuition. I think she’ll make the right decision.”