Kaitlyn Christian and Sabrina Santamaria go back - way back. "Sabrina and I have known each other for over 10 years, and we began playing doubles in the U14 division," Christian says. Santamaria follows, "At that point, Kaitlyn would only wear pants to play, no skirts or shorts." They were occasional doubles partners on the USTA junior circuit, but things took a different path when they both joined the tennis team at the University of Southern California.
They excelled in the 2013 season, going 37-1 that year, with their one loss being a tie-break to Kristie Ahn and current WTA Rising Star Nicole Gibbs of Stanford. They became the first female duo (and second overall) to capture the collegiate Triple Crown. On top of winning the Pac-12 doubles title, they won the All-American Championship, the USTA/ITA National Indoor title and capped a near-flawless season by winning the NCAA title, all without the loss of a set.
Colette Lewis, the founder of the popular junior and collegiate tennis blog zootennis.com, said their chemistry is undeniable. "Their friendship was always evident, even when the pressure began to mount as they went for the collegiate slam. The variety and individual strengths they displayed, with Christian most comfortable and effective at the net and Santamaria providing solids returns and baseline play, resulted in a confident and happy team on the court."
Christian and Santamaria also competed at the 2013 World University Games in Kazan, Russia, where Sabrina earned a silver medal in singles. They fell in the women's doubles quarterfinals, 6-4, 6-3, to Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Elena Vesnina.
Their NCAA win unofficially guaranteed the SoCal team a wildcard berth into the US Open, but when the wildcards were announced, Christian and Santamaria were surprisingly left off. "We weren't contacted prior to the Open on the forms that needed to be filled out, and we just assumed that we would do that when we got to player registration. We were in shock and depressed [about the news]. We flew a couple thousand miles, had our families fly out and spend money on hotels," recalls Santamaria on the "emotionally draining" week.
Lewis praised the two players for their maturity throughout the process. "The wildcard oversight had to be a huge disappointment, with the US Open the obvious climax to the best year in women's collegiate history, but if they were bitter or outraged, they never showed it."
The USTA offered both Christian and Santamaria wildcards into the mixed doubles draw, giving them their Grand Slam opportunity, with a promise to play the 2014 US Open women's doubles event. "We were so grateful for the opportunity and we loved every second playing in mixed," Christian recalled. Unfortunately, their Open plans were derailed again when Santamaria tore her ACL the February before, dashing their Big Apple plans once again.
"Sabrina and I were bummed that we weren't able to compete in the 2014 Open, but getting her healthy and not rushing her comeback was the first priority. The USTA was more than happy to hold our wildcard and were really nice throughout the entire process," says Christian. Santamaria's rehab took nearly a full year, but she says she and the knee are 100% healthy.
Christian, a year older than Santamaria, graduated from USC with a degree in Sociology in 2014 and jumped onto the WTA tour, earning a Top 400 doubles ranking after claiming two titles on the ITF Circuit this year. Christian used the year to familiarize herself with the professional tour. "The last year has been a great learning experience for me. I've played with a few different partners and now have a good understanding of how the tour works. It will be fun to play with Sabrina full-time after she finishes her last semester of school." Santamaria says Christian's success isn't a fluke, stating "she's one of the best doubles players in the world."
With the help of Stephen Amritraj, the USTA's National Coach of Collegiate Tennis, forms were quickly filed and the two best friends were accepted as a wildcard team into this year's tournament. The draw was released on Monday, with Christian and Santamaria not having to look far in the draw - they play the No.1-seeded team of Martina Hingis and Sania Mirza.
Santamaria was quick to point out that Hingis is an idol for both she and Christian. "We grew up idolizing Martina Hingis and now getting to play her in a Grand Slam is a dream. If we were to get a tough draw, I'm really glad it was the 1 seed. They are the best of the best, and this experience is only going to benefit us." Christian adds, "Hingis was my idol growing up and I've always looked up to her and tried to model my game after hers. I am really looking forward to testing our skills against one of the best teams in the world. We want to reach that level so we are going to take as much as we can from the match and go out there and let it rip!"
While Hingis is an idol for the team, they're somewhat familiar with Mirza. Their teammate, Zoe Scandalis, also a recent professional, is a cousin of the doubles World No.1, and Santamaria is certain that Scandalis will be in the Trojan's corner on Court 7 today.
After their US Open ends, both will head back West. Santamaria has one more semester of school, graduating in December with a degree in International Relations. Both will be playing a series of tournaments in the United States for the rest of 2015, before traveling together around North America and Europe in 2016. They are more than excited to use the season's final Grand Slam as a launchpad up the WTA Rankings. Santamaria states, "We have been so excited and thrilled to be in New York. The atmosphere is amazing and it's really a dream come true. We are so thankful for all of these opportunities that have come our way. We couldn't have gotten to this point without the help and support from our parents, everyone at USC, and the USTA."
Lewis is among the many faces looking forward to watching Christian and Santamaria take the stage against the Wimbledon champions. "The ensuing two years had to have been difficult to handle, but now facing the best doubles team in the world at their home slam, Christian and Santamaria and their infectious smiles will undoubtedly light up the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center."
Get to know the pair in a USC Trojan Spotlight before their NCAA win: