TWUSA with Ellen Perez: 'I have always looked up to Rafael Nadal'

Tennis - The 23-year-old Aussie is currently ranked inside the top-100 in doubles and top-200 in singles

by Jovica Ilic
TWUSA with Ellen Perez: 'I have always looked up to Rafael Nadal'

Recognized as one of the most promising Australian youngsters, the 23-year-old Ellen Perez has been through quite a journey so far, enjoying various sports before dedicating herself to tennis and making a successful trip from his native country to Georgia and back. At the age of 14, she opted for tennis and that proved to be the best possible choice, entering the top-100 on the ITF junior list despite not playing a lot of events, especially outside Australia.

Struggling with injuries, Ellen decided to start a college career at the University of Georgia but there were more setbacks on the horizon, having to undergo four surgeries and failing to achieve everything she was hoping for.

After three years as the Bulldog, Perez decided to turn pro in 2017 after a string of solid results on the ITF Tour in 2016 and 2017, preparing herself for the challenging WTA Tour and setting new goals for 2018. It was the best possible start of the season for Ellen, defeating Kristina Mladenovic in Sydney and finishing the year with four back-to-back singles finals at home in Australia.

The results in doubles were even better and she is currently ranked inside the top-100 on the WTA doubles list, seeking more good results on both fields in the season ahead of us. Ellen was very kind to give us an extended interview, speaking about her first tennis steps, Collegiate journey, tennis in Australia in general and her thoughts on the new ITF rankings:

When did you start playing and how did you choose tennis over cricket, basketball, soccer and other sports you had played when you were younger? I started playing tennis when I was seven-year-old.

At the time I also loved soccer and was playing that competitively too. From about 14 I had to decide between soccer and tennis because I knew I couldn’t do both. I would say I loved soccer more and was better at it but my dad loved tennis and I knew in the long run tennis would open more opportunities and propose more money than women’s soccer.

Your ITF junior career was restricted mainly to Australia and countries that surround it. Did it feel like a disadvantage for you at that point, still finding the way to enter the top-60 in the last junior year? Yea it’s obviously not ideal being from Australia as it’s a far way to travel to be exposed to the other girls and bigger tournaments.

I never gave the ITF juniors a good crack. I couldn’t miss too much school while young. It wasn’t until I turned to distance education for my final two years of high school that it allowed me to play a solid year or two of ITF tournaments.

I do think it disadvantaged me from cracking the pro tour younger as there is a valuable experience in playing the best juniors in the world and experiencing being at the Grand Slam sites. After some serious thinking, you decided to embrace Collegiate tennis in 2014 when you joined the University of Georgia and their strong tennis squad.

Tell us something more about this important decision and what made you picking College instead of chasing pro success already in teenage years. I’m very injury prone and prior to deciding to go to college I had suffered a few big injuries.

I figured having a degree as a backup just in case things weren’t to go as planned on the pro tour would be a good option. I also knew college tennis would allow me to go for as many or as little years as I’d like and compete in the sport I loved.

As well as college tennis providing a degree, college tennis was becoming a solid pathway for transitioning into the pros. I ultimately saw the college pathway as having many upsides and as a great way to improve my tennis, learn how to compete, develop strong relationships in America, get an education and make lifelong memories.

You stayed with the Bulldog family for three years and it was an instant success, earning your place in the team and becoming one of the best players in the entire Division. Share thoughts and best memories from your Georgia journey and how did you manage to link training and education? I would say my years at college had many ups and downs.

On paper, it looks like a decently successful career and there is a lot I’m proud of but I also had four surgeries while there and didn’t achieve everything I had set out to achieve both individually and team-wise.

But there were so many great things about college with tennis aside. The friendships you make while there with a vast variety of athletes is amazing. You travel weeks on end with eight or so of your best friends on your team, sharing hotels, doing fun team bonding activities, going to fancy restaurants, traveling all around America and competing alongside them.

Linking training and education was the toughest part about college. You had to find the right balance otherwise one would suffer. I had some late nights and early mornings to try to make both work but it was more when you are on the road and missing classes and having to catch up with tests that things become trickier.

You decided to turn pro after the junior season and enter the challenging but exciting world of the WTA Tour, returning home and entering ITF events in Australia. How much different did it feel compared to your regular Collegiate matches and was it easier when you didn't have to think about exams anymore, focusing entirely on your game? The pro tour is extremely different to college tennis.

You no longer have your team there with you cheering you on. You no longer have someone booking your flights and accommodation, buying all of your meals, stringing your racquets, buying new equipment, etc. The things you take for granted at college really become prominent when you go on the pro tour.

So that aspect of things is definitely harder and over time you learn to adapt. In terms of training more and competing stress-free it was great. You no longer have to allocate time towards studying and stressing about exams and can focus solely on your tennis.

It becomes a big weight lifted off your shoulders. Now I almost feel like I have too much spare time! 2018 was very prosperous for you, entering top-100 in doubles and top-200 in singles and it all started with that great win over Kristina Mladenovic in Sydney.

Describe that match from your perspective and how much boost it gave you for the rest of the season. I was given a wildcard into Sydney International extremely last minute and I don’t think I even had time to comprehend how big of an opportunity it was.

I relished at the idea of playing in front of my family and friends and playing the number 11 in the world. Going into the match I was pretty nervous especially when I was put on Ken Rosewell arena on live television for the first time.

I knew I had to get on the board early to help settle the nerves and once I found myself going toe to toe with her I knew I was in with a good chance. The whole experience was surreal and coming out of it with the win really helped make me feel like I belonged at that level.

It gave me confidence going forward that I could compete against the world best and if I worked hard enough then anything is possible. The results were not that good in singles in the following months but you have been a happy camper again as soon as you started competing in Australia in September, reaching four back-to-back finals and closing the year in style despite finishing runner-up in all of them.

Yea this year was quiet a roller coaster. It’s not easy to play good tennis for the whole year. It’s mentally and physically draining and especially having never played a full year on the tour I didn’t know what to expect.

Going on that eight or so match losing streak really hurts the confidence. I think the big turning point was that I never gave up or got too discouraged about how bad I was going. I knew if I kept committing to training hard and doing all the little 1 percenters right it would soon pay off and translate into matches.

Coming back to Australia it allowed me to reset and eventually find the form I knew I was capable of. Kimberly Birrell defeated you in the semi-final of the Australian Open Wild Card Play-off but there is still a chance you can get a main draw wild card for the home Major.

Tell us something more about the Melbourne Park and the amazing complex that gets better and better every year. For an Aussie, how inspiring is to play there and is there any other tennis event that could compare with it? Kim Birrell has been playing some amazing tennis this back end of the year too and was very deserving of that wildcard win.

It’s great that tennis Australia can put on such a great event at such an amazing complex. Being able to train day in and day out at one of the best facilities in the world is incredible. We have access to ice baths, locker rooms, gym, recovery equipment, indoor and outdoor hard courts, clay courts, physiotherapists, nutritionists, psychologist, video analysis, tennis coaches and physical trainers, so it’s hard not to thrive in such a great environment.

There’s nothing better than Australian Open time when the place is buzzing and you have a home crowd there supporting you. Having been to all the Grand Slam sites, I may be a little biased in saying Australian Open is my favorite but the other slams facilities are equally as impressive.

Describe your game style and the shots you rely on the most. I’m a left-hander and like to set up my points with my lefty serve. I’m also an aggressive baseliner and like to dictate with my forehand and play points on my terms.

Ultimately I’m a shot maker and like to have the last say.

Who have been your role models while growing up and which players you admire the most? My parents have always been role models of mine. They have always instilled in me to work hard and achieve my goals.

Nothing comes easily and they also loved playing sports. In terms of tennis, I have always looked up to Rafael Nadal. Having a Spanish background and with him being a Spanish left-hander I’ve always had a soft spot for him.

He also trains extremely hard, is the ultimate competitor and very friendly and humble which I love. I can’t say I have emulated my entire game around his but I wish I could haha! The favorite tennis match you had a chance to see live or on TV? Nothing really comes to mind.

I have seen most if not all the top players play live and seen so many incredible matches and shots but find it hard to pick one. I remember watching a good chunk of the Isner vs Mahut Wimbledon fifth set and being in awe at the scoreline.

Knowing John Isner is also a Georgia Bulldog may make me a little biased as to say that’s one of my favorite tennis match memories. How do you rate the current state of the Australian tennis and the fact there are no juniors ranked in the top-50? Australian women’s tennis is definitely on the rise.

We have at least 10 girls in the top 250 and if we look back a few years ago that number would have been far less. We are seeing a lot of girls making rises and it’s just a matter of a few of us cracking into the top 100 for more to believe they can.

In terms of the younger girls, we are definitely struggling. We had a patch of time where funding was cut and no junior tours overseas took place. I think that did hinder the next crop of girls coming through but things are back heading in the right direction.

We do have a few juniors who are very promising and represented Australia really well at the recent Junior Fed cup tie. What do you like to do outside the world of tennis and do you have some interesting hobbies? I love hanging out with friends and going shopping, eating out or going to the beach.

Sometimes when I have time off the easiest and most relaxing thing I do is watch movies or binge watch tv series. As far as hobbies nothing really comes to mind. I just started working for Aussie Athlete Agency where I help get high school students into American universities on scholarships.

I’m very passionate about getting kids to go down that pathway and achieve their goals. The most beautiful place you ever visited? It’s so hard to pick one. I went to the French Alps near Chamonix one year and the mountain tops still had snow.

I paraglided off a mountain there and the view was just unreal. Nice, France is also beautiful and traveling along that coastline to Monaco is pretty cool. This year I went to Turkey and fell in love with the city. There is so much to see and do there.

The new tennis season is just around the corner and the brand new ITF World Tennis Tour is ready to kick off. Share your thoughts about the big changes in the ranking structure and did you manage to understand everything, with many players struggling to crack the new entry lists. I didn’t know what to expect from the new ranking structure and system but after seeing it put into place for the first tournament of the year in the 25k in Playford, South Australia, I’m far from impressed.

You have girls ranked 190th in the world not in the main draw but some girls who were previously 700th in the world now taking a spot in the main draw because their transition shadow ranking is high. I find it very hard to comprehend and not sure if this is how they intended it to play out.

I’m still very ill-informed about most of the rules and how the structure will look but I guess time will tell. What have been your plans for 2019 and where do you want to see yourself on the ranking list next December? My plans for 2019 will depend a little on how the Australian Summer of tennis goes.

I would love to play more WTA events and higher-level ITF tournaments. I want to expose myself to playing those higher ranked girls. I now have my ranking within range of playing Grand Slam qualifying so I’d love to play all four Slams and see myself making some main draws.

I hate putting numbers on things but would love to cut both my singles and doubles ranking in half. Therefore top 100 in singles and 50 in doubles.

Ellen Perez Rafael Nadal