PALM BEACH, FL, USA - Acapulco already feels like “a million years ago” for Mexican No.1 Renata Zarazua, but the memories of those electric nights at the Abierto Mexicano TELCEL are still fresh on her mind.
Ranked No.270 in the world, the 22-year-old wildcard delighted Mexican fans with her fairytale run to the semifinal, becoming the first woman from her country since 1993 to advance to that stage in a WTA tournament. And she did it in style too, taking down No.1 seed Sloane Stephens in her opening match to make the tennis world sit up and take notice.
“I think it was the best week of my life,” Zarazua said, speaking to wtatennis.com from Palm Beach, Florida where she is self-isolating with her brother Patricio. “I experienced a lot of different things that I’d never experienced before. Everything was really new for me.
“I took away from Acapulco a lot of beautiful memories and experiences. I hope I can repeat it again someday.”
“I’m very happy that I got to experience it all with my brother,” she added. “I feel like he was a really big help all week for me, helping me win match after match.”
Zarazua credits her Acapulco surge in part to a revamped coaching team led by older brother Patricio, a former college tennis player for Palm Beach Atlantic University, who travels with her and retired ATP pro Hugo Armando, with whom she trains in Palm Beach.
“It’s the best team I’ve ever had in all these years, simply because our relationship as friends - especially off the court - is so great,” Zarazua explained. “Everything else just flows from there. And of course, my brother, who is the most important piece.”
“We’ve always had a great relationship, and ever since we started working together we agreed that if there were going to be any arguments on the court, we would solve them on the court,” she said. “Because as soon as we step off the court, we’re still going to be brother and sister like always.”
The siblings come from a family full of tennis players, dating back to their great-uncle Vicente Zarazua, a Mexican pro who played 16 Davis Cup ties for his country and claimed gold medals in doubles at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City in the demonstration and exhibition tennis events.
Renata herself got her start in the Mexican capital, picking up a racquet at eight years old and competing in regional and national tournaments across the country soon after. She moved to South Florida at 13 to continue her training, and she’s still based there today. Zarazua, who stands at 5’4” (1.62 m) studied Dominika Cibulkova’s and Simona Halep’s matches to learn how they maximized their weapons to make up for their height.
The Mexican player had been hovering around the Top 200-300 for years, grinding away on the ITF Pro Circuit where she had won two $10,000-level events. This year, with the aid of the ITFs’ Grand Slam Development Fund, she made the major change of appointing her brother as her coach and hired physio Carlos Aranda during the off-season.
With her new team, Zarazua suddenly found herself playing her best tennis and kicked off the season with a run to the semifinals at ITF 25K in Vero Beach before heading to Acapulco.
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“I knew that I was training really well and that things were going great because my team gave me a lot of confidence that we were on the right track,” Zarazua recalled. “But I never expected that it was going to happen that early in the season.”
In Acapulco, Zarazua lit up the courts with her stunning first-round upset of top seed Stephens, and continued to pack the Grandstand Caliente for two more dramatic three-set battles, taking down Katie Volynets and World No.74 Tamara Zidansek on her way to a historic semifinal.
“In my first match, there weren't really that many people watching me yet, but once I beat Sloane Stephens the stadium started to fill up,” Zarazua remembered. “The crowd supported me a lot. I appreciated it and it was beautiful to hear them shouting “Re-na-ta” over and over.”
The highlight of her week was stepping out onto Acapulco’s imposing Estadio, which was packed to the rafters with supporters flying Mexico’s tricolor flag for her historic semifinal against Canada’s Leylah Fernandez.
“Whenever I think about it, I know it’s a moment I’ll never forget,” she added. “And that it happened in Mexico, that I experienced all of this in Mexico, it just made it even more special, because the people were with me the whole time.”
She took her confidence to Monterrey and later Iruapuato, where she had reached the semifinals. But on the day that she was set to take on Australia’s Astra Sharma, Zarazua received the abrupt news of the ITF season’s suspension as a result of the global coronavirus pandemic.
“On the one hand it was really hard mentally to accept the situation, I mean I was playing so well and I felt that everything was going in such a good direction,” she said.”But at the same time, during that week in Acapulco and then Monterrey and even Irapuato, I was mentally getting really exhausted.
“[The stoppage] did help me a bit because I got to go home, sit down and reflect on all the good things that happened and take away the positives.”
Now, Zarazua has nothing but time as the tennis season continues to be suspended until at least July 12. But she’s going to take advantage of it: the 22-year-old shares a Palm Beach apartment with her brother and coach Patricio, with whom she’s self-isolating. Their complex also has a tennis court, and Renata had plans to practice regularly.
“I really just don’t want to waste this time, I think it’s best for me to stay active so I can keep my mind occupied too and have a distraction from all the things that are happening,” Zarazua said, speaking before Florida’s stay-at-home order went into effect. “My team and I have already decided that we’re not going to plan long term, we’re going to think in two-week blocks. Every week we’re going to work on something specific, until we’re not allowed to go outside anymore.
“The most important thing is the mental aspect, you need a lot of patience. At the end of the day, we don’t know what tournament is going to be our next, so it’s hard to have the motivation to do the work. So I think the motivation has to come from within, and just try to better myself every day.
“I’m actually glad that everything in Acapulco happened at the start of the year, so it can keep me motivated the rest of the year.”