A fighting chance

Published 12:00 am Monday, September 29, 2003

Vilmarie Castellvi is used to winning in tennis, but now she just needs a chance to compete.

Castellvi, the player TSU tennis coach Eric Hayes selected with his wild card spot in the USTA Challenger, became accustomed to winning in the college ranks. She finished her career at Tennessee ranked No. 1 in the nation and was the 2003 SEC Player of the Year.

Now, she faces different challenges as a professional. She is currently ranked No. 414 in the world and will take part in the USTA $50,000 Challenger of Troy against the tournament's top seed Maria Elena Camerin of Italy in the second match on court one. Camerin is ranked No. 90.

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"I am actually ranked a little higher, but my points from the last tournament have not been counted yet," Castellvi said. "I made it to the quarters of a 75 last week, so I should be right at 300. I'm moving up quickly."

Castellvi, a San Juan, Puerto Rico, native, has had to make some adjustments since she became a professional. At 22, she is older than many of the newcomers to the professional side of the sport.

Though some players her age have been playing professionally longer than she has, she has no regrets about going to college first.

"When you turn pro, there's only a 50-50 chance [of success]," she said. "I had a lot of room to grow as a player, and I decided it to go to college."

Castellvi moved to Florida a couple of years before she went to college and learned tennis at an academy there from Sonia Hahn-Patrick, who left to become the women's tennis coach at Tennessee, along with husband Mike Patrick. Castellvi followed her to Tennessee, and she found success.

Now, she has to try to find success all over again. Since she has not been pro very long, she has to have help getting into challengers with payouts as high as the one taking place in Troy this week. The $50,000 Challengers take players ranked from about 90 to 250, but with a wild card entry, players like Castellvi have a chance.

"I had people offering me thousands of dollars for the wild card," Hayes said. "I can't sell the wild card, but people do all the time.

"But I wanted the wild card to go to a college graduate who needed a break, not some spoiled rich kid who gets anything they want."

Hayes was contacted by professional women's tennis legend Gigi Fernandez, a 17-time Grand Slam doubles champion, with information about Castellvi for the wild card. Fernandez is Castellvi's coach.

Hayes did not take long to decide to extend the invitation to Castellvi. Hayes knew about Castellvi before because, as a college tennis coach, he knew about her performance.

Castellvi said she was grateful for the opportunity to participate in the challenger.

"I need someone to believe in me, and I can make things happen," she said.

Castellvi said her strengths are her feet and her backhand, and she thinks she can improve her standing in the world tennis rankings.

One of the biggest changes she has had to face since moving to the professional circuit is the improved talent level of her competition.

"You can do real well one week, and then lose in the first round the next," Castellvi said. "It sounds weird, but you have to learn how to lose.

"You have to be able to put losses behind you. You realize that this person may be a great player, and you have to get ready for the next week's event."