For a lot of kids in the U.S., the opportunity to play sports as a personal passion are aplenty. However, for Nevada women’s tennis team senior, Claudia Herrero, she had to make the decision to pursue the sport that she loved at 13 years old.
Organized youth sports are much more expensive in Europe than they are in the U.S. Growing up in the cold small town of Salamanca, Spain where there is only one indoor tennis court, most kids had to take one of two paths: solely focus on education or begin training for professional competition. The Herrero family always wanted to prioritize both.
Herrero’s older brother was the one who introduced her to the sport. During the weekends, she would tag along whenever her brother would play at the tennis center. At a young age, spectators and passersby would notice her natural skill for the game. Luckily for Herrero, she caught the eye of one of the most prestigious tennis academies in all of Spain. By 13 years old, she was offered a scholarship to attend the tennis academy in Barcelona.
A life-altering decision doesn’t usually come at such a young age, but for Herrero, who had only ever lived in a town roughly the size of Reno, moving to a town ten times the size of Salamanca, the competitive nature of preparatory academies, and the distance from her family didn’t stop her from pursuing this opportunity.
However, for a long time, the young professional hopeful went back-and-forth about whether or not she made the correct decision.
“I had such a bad time in my first year,” Herrero said. “I just wanted to go home every single day.”
Coupled with her homesickness, she was overwhelmed by the rigors of training and the ultra-competitive nature of becoming a professional. She entered in the pro ranks when she was 16 years old but quickly burned out because of the constant pressure and expectations. While she was able to garner on-field success, she was unhappy about the direction of that her life and career were going.
I got my WTA ranking which was really good,” Herrero said. “I got my first WTA opponent when I was 16 years old but then my highest ranking was like 1000 and everyone was expecting more. We put this goal at the end of the year that I had to be like around 800 or 900 and I was trying my best and I couldn’t. I had a lot of pressure and as soon as I stepped on the court, I couldn’t at all. I wasn’t able to play.”
When her coaches began to notice that she may not have been quite ready to continue her professional career, they suggested a different path. Her coaches brought up the idea to take her talents abroad and attain her college degree while competing in the collegiate ranks in the U.S.
Another migration, this time across continents, was an opportunity that Herrero felt was something that she could not pass up. However, this time around she felt much more confident about her circumstances.
“People think that back at home that people can play high-intensity sports and study at the same time but we don’t have those opportunities,” Herrero said. “That’s why a lot of international people are here, especially on the tennis team. Tennis is really expensive there. But here, we can do both things at the same time, which is awesome. I got the opportunity to get my degree and I’m doing something that I really like.”
When she first met Nevada head coach Guillaume Tonelli, she felt comfortable in choosing Nevada as the school where she would continue her education and tennis career. While the rigors of preparation increased, she was walking into a scenario where people valued her education and personal well-being. With a team that has a mostly international make-up and an environment that was supportive and conducive to her growth both personally and as a tennis player, Herrero felt comfortable for the first time in years.
“Here in school if I have too much, I can go up to coach and say, ‘Coach I have a lot on my plate, can I practice a little less today?’ and he’s going to be okay with that, so are my teammates,” Herrero said. “I felt like I was free, kind of like no pressure. I was just able to play tennis and not think about anything else. I also think it was really helpful to know all the people that you know here behind you in that anything that goes wrong, you know that someone is going to be behind you to take care of you.”
Once she stepped on the court in Reno, she has been nothing short of spectacular. In her first year, she set multiple singles records in both singles and doubles play. In singles play, she matched Tracy King’s record of 24 wins in a season. Her performance was a precursor of things to come.
“The biggest thing with Claudia is that she is a natural leader off the bat,” Tonelli said. “She was organized, taking care of things. It clicked right away. She came in already established, tennis-wise, maturity-wise, and leadership wise. There’s people that are going to take charge right away and know what to do, get organized, get on it in a way. She had the whole package right way.”
Last season, she earned a spot in the USTA/ITA National Indoor Intercollegiate Championships as one of the top 32 participants in the nation by winning the ITA Mountain Regional qualifier over her teammate Sheila Morales in a field of 128 collegiate tennis players.
As her career draws closer to its finale, she hopes to either pursue a master’s degree in finance or get another crack at the professional tennis circuit. However at the moment, following being named Nevada’s first ever Mountain West Player of the year in 2016, and qualifying for the Oracle ITA Masters, she has her eyes set on the NCAA Tournament this upcoming spring.
“In two years, she’s achieved so much already,” Tonelli said. “She’s at the highest level and she wants to show it. She does have the NCAA’s to go to make it full circle and that’s the goal.”