The 'Doubles Dossier' takes you inside the game to get to know the stars of the WTA's Doubles Circuit. Brazil's Luisa Stefani has enjoyed a swift rise up the doubles rankings after leaving a successful collegiate career at Pepperdine Univesity in 2018. The 23-year-old captured her first WTA doubles title with Hayley Carter at 2019 Tashkent and has already started the 2021 season with a run to the final with in Abu Dhabi.
WTA Insider: How did you start playing tennis?
Stefani: I grew up in Sao Paulo and I have an older brother, he's one year older, and my parents always put us in sports and valued education. I was always competing with my brother in everything. I used to play a lot of soccer, futsal to be more specific, I did Tae Kwon Do, swimming, volleyball, basketball.
Tennis started very randomly. We used to go to the beach every summer and we would play paddle tennis on the beach. My mom was really bad at it and so she signed up for tennis lessons at a small academy near our house. She liked it and she put us kids in it as well. That's how it started.
WTA Insider: What did you enjoy about tennis?
Stefani: I loved to play. There was no reason why I loved it. We had group lessons and it was just fun games. The more I played the more I wanted to play. It was nothing specific. It wasn't like I liked to compete or anything. I just liked being on court.
WTA Insider: You were playing so many different sports. How did you come to choose tennis as your focus?
Stefani: After a little while I had to narrow it down and find more time to play tennis. So tennis started to grow more on me. I wanted to get better. It's kind of addicting because there's always an improvement. Every day you want to get better and I still feel that to this day. That was the main thing.
I started liking tennis more than the other sports, so I decided to find more time to play tennis. It went from a Saturday morning class to twice a week to three times a week and so on. There was a little program that two female coaches in Brazil started called Golden Girls Academy. It was very organized, there was great structure, there was a fitness coach, psychologist, a little bit of everything. I liked that structure. there was a vision in the structure and I liked the coaches involved. It was eye-opening.
That's when it started to become more serious. I want to live off of this, I want to be a professional tennis player.
Then when I was 14-years-old, my family decided to move to the States. We moved to Florida, near Saddlebrook Tennis Academy in Tampa. That's where I did high school and eventually went to college.
But it all started at the beach in Sao Paulo, because my mom couldn't play paddle tennis.
WTA Insider: Did you have any tennis idols growing up?
Stefani: I always loved Federer when I was growing up, but I can't say I had one specific person that I wanted to be like. I just enjoyed the game. The more I played the more I learned and the more I watched, the more I liked watching players.
WTA Insider: Did your family move to America for your tennis?
Stefani: It was for a variety of reasons, though mainly my parents wanted to give my brother and me an opportunity to play tennis and play at a higher level. Also to learn English and go to university in the future. Tennis was definitely one of the main reasons we move because in the States there are way more opportunities than in Brazil at the time.
WTA Insider: Did you experience any culture shock?
Stefani: It was definitely challenging, but more exciting than challenging at the time. It wasn't like I moved completely alone, but I was very shy and I didn't speak much English at all. That was challenging to do well in school. But being in tennis helps you naturally become part of a community. So in some ways, it was difficult to adjust to the culture shock and the routine, but I was also very excited to do so. It was a good fun experience.
WTA Insider: How did you decide to play collegiate tennis at Pepperdine University?
Stefani: It was a very last-minute decision in my last year of junior tennis. Because I moved to the US I started to learn about college tennis. When you're in Brazil you have no idea what it is. It wasn't until my last year of ITF juniors that I even started to consider it because I was getting a lot of messages from coaches.
My parents wanted me to consider it. I didn't have as good results as I wanted to in my last year of juniors. Then I started to visit the schools. Once I decided to go to college, I loved Pepperdine. I loved the coach, I thought he could help me improve tennis, not just go to college and get stuck which was my main concern at the time. And of course, enjoy my college time. Everyone told me to choose somewhere I felt I belonged.
I was so stressed out and I couldn't choose, and I couldn't take it anymore so I chose Pepperdine for the coach and the place. It suits me very well.
WTA Insider: The concept of collegiate sports is very American. Was it difficult to get your head around the idea?
Stefani: It's so weird and different and I almost didn't want to buy into it because I wanted to play pro. Sometimes as a foreigner, because you don't play the national tournaments in the States, I only used to see the ITF/World level, so you don't have any idea how good college tennis can be.
Now I see it in all aspects, but at the time it was either you go to college or you go pro. There was no concept you could do both.
Once I started visiting the schools I started to get a better feel for it. Seeing what the team atmosphere was like, I felt like I would enjoy that. My concern was always if the tennis level was going to be high enough so I could go pro after, because that's the only thing I was thinking about at the time.
Now going through it, I see how prestigious, how big it is, and how fun it is to play college tennis. I see it in a completely different way.
WTA Insider: How was you collegiate experience?
Stefani: My first year was one of the best years of my life. When I committed to going to Pepperdine I only committed to going for one year. I ended up loving it and I stayed another year. I felt like I still had a lot more to learn and grow. And then I stayed another season. I felt like each year came with different challenges.
The first year I felt like I wanted to prove something. The second year I felt like I had a great first year as a freshman, so now I had the pressure of doing well for the school and for myself. Half of the team graduated and so it was a completely different environment the second year, which was good, but it was challenging. Now looking back I think it's so cool that one year can be so different from another year.
I still go back and it feels like home.
WTA Insider: How was your transition to pro tennis?
Stefani: So I was still playing professional tournaments during my summer breaks to keep me still playing and getting a ranking. I always did better in doubles given my game style. I took a semester off in the Fall of 2017 because I didn't think I would go back but then I felt like I was all over the place, so I went back.
I'm lucky that I have Saddlebrook as a base when I was transitioning from Pepperdine to the pro circuit. I think that made it easier in the structure, having a place to train, having a coach, and then from there I could have the comfort of having a team even if I was traveling by myself because of the financial challenges. I knew if I could give myself a chance at the tournaments, eventually the ranking and results would come. So I think it was about picking the right schedule and giving myself the chance to play.
WTA Insider: What were the biggest challenges you faced trying to get up to the WTA Tour?
Stefani: I think the toughest thing, in the beginning, was the uncertainty of not having things for you all the time and relying on results and performance to earn prize money and feel good about yourself and earn confidence. Also financially, having to bank everything in the beginning especially in the ITFs until you got the ranking high enough to transition to the WTAs. That's a big motivation because I know if I get to the WTAs things will be easier in some ways, obviously harder in others.
In 2019 I was still playing singles and doubles in every tournament. It happened that I was doing better in doubles every single time. I started to have a big gap in my rankings.
In March 2019, Giuliana Olmos was going to get a wildcard in Monterrey and she invited me to play doubles with her there. That was a big moment in my transition because I gave it a shot to play doubles at a bigger event instead of playing singles somewhere else. We made a good run and from there my ranking started climbing up and then I had to decide whether to play doubles at bigger events or grind and play singles. It was almost natural. The decision was made for me.
Soon I got into French Open that year as well, and then things just started to flow. I'm not big on overthinking, I just go with the flow. Seems to be working.
WTA Insider: How is life on tour for you? There aren't many Brazilians on tour and oftentimes you are the only one at any given tournament.
Stefani: I love the lifestyle. I love the travel, being in different places, being at different tournaments week after week. You experience a new life every week, meeting new people. I really love being somewhere else, being able to let it go if the week before was a bad one, learning from it, and moving on. Every week having a new start.
As far as not having as many Brazilians on tour as I would like on tour, one of my biggest motivations now being on the WTA Tour is that I see how I can make more of a difference in my home country and hopefully have more girls playing in the future. We have a good generation and I'm hoping in the next year or two we'll have more around.
That's what I've noticed being on the WTA Tour in the last year it gives me more exposure back home. Of course, that comes with results and rankings and success, but that's a motivating factor to be on tour. It gives me the resources and the opportunity to give back in my home country, which is what is in my reach right now.
WTA Insider: What makes you a good doubles player?
Stefani: Probably my game style. I love being at the net, it's one of my biggest strengths. I also love working together with a team. Having a partner there to have fun with. I feel like I'm very light-hearted on court. Having someone there to enjoy the moment with is a big thing on court and off court.
I love the game. I love that you have to be tactically smart. It's a completely different game than singles. Those are the main things.
WTA Insider: What was your best on-court moment?
Stefani: There was this moment in the third round of the Australian Open last year. We lost the match but it was my favorite moment. I was in the zone. I was in the flow. It's almost as if you're watching yourself from another dimension. Things were flying for the whole set. I didn't have to do anything. It was auto-pilot and my body was just playing. It's the only time ever. It's so hard to get to that point so it was amazing.
WTA Insider: What's your favorite tournament?
Stefani: Australian Open. I love the energy, I love the people, the food, the weather, the courts, the Happy Slam, I love Melbourne. I don't know what I don't love about here. Even the quarantine (laughs). They're doing an incredible job.
WTA Insider: What is the most used app on your phone?
Stefani: Whatsapp and Spotify.
WTA Insider: It's Friday night. Are you out or in?
WTA Insider: Watch or Read?
Stefani: Watch. Little Women.
WTA Insider: Dream doubles partner?
Stefani: Hayley Carter and Roger Federer. Or Andy Murray.
WTA Insider: Favorite meal?
Stefani: Rice and beans from my grandma. It's legendary.
WTA Insider: What is your travel advice for people who want to visit Sao Paulo?
Stefani: Explore the restaurants in different neighborhoods. We have a lot of different cultures in different neighborhoods. So explore the cuisines and the nightlife. And a Sunday feijoada.