At the age of 11, Maria Camila Osorio Serrano had her first taste of adversity in tennis.
The Colombian had left her hometown of Cúcuta, a "tranquil" city on the Venezuelan border, for the Club Med academy in Florida, where she would stay for the next three years. She didn't speak a word of English.
"It was really tough for me," Osorio Serrano says. "They put me in a room with two girls, one from Japan and the other from Canada. And I remember they were talking to me, talking really slowly, with hands and everything. I just didn't understand a thing. That day, I called my dad and I said, 'I want to come back, I don't like it here, I don't understand a word.' He said, 'No, be calm, be patient. If you want to be good at tennis you have to stay there and learn.' And that's what I did."
That was just eight years ago. By the age of 17, she was the 2019 US Open girls' champion and junior World No.1. And this month, Osorio Serrano - who goes by Camila, or Cami to friends and family - has been showing the rest of the world all she's learned. Off court, she's bubbly, gregarious and as talkative in English as in Spanish. On court, she doesn't know how to quit, and has a knack for coming up with her best tennis with her back to the wall.
This was apparent last week at the Copa Colsanitas in Bogota where, playing just her fourth WTA main draw, she captured her first title as a No.180-ranked local wildcard. Throughout the week, Osorio Serrano's ability to harness their energy thrilled her home crowd. Accompanying her many hotshots with ebullient reactions, it was evident that tennis was a game of heart for the 19-year-old.
"It is a way to express my emotions," Osorio Serrano says. "I feel so different when I'm on court than when I'm outside it. Off the court I'm always smiling, always enjoying everything. Also in tennis, but when I play I just like to compete. I love to yell every point, I love to fight and of course to win."
An incredible effort by both players, down to a final set tiebreaker.— wta (@WTA) April 15, 2021
🇨🇴@CamiOsorioTenis clinches a spot in the quarterfinals.#MUSCHealthWomensOpen pic.twitter.com/FIJkQ8Qu5q
It's perhaps even more impressive that instead of celebrating her victory, Osorio Serrano hopped on an overnight plane to Charleston for the MUSC Health Women's Open this week - and has kept going strong. With little sleep, and on a different surface with no crowd cheering, she upset No.2 seed Magda Linette 6-3, 4-6, 7-5 in the first round, where she came back from 3-5 down in the third set. She followed that up with a 2-6, 7-6(2), 7-6(1) defeat of Christina McHale to reach the quarterfinals, despite the American serving for the match twice in the second set.
Osorio Serrano was born into a sporting family. Grandfather Rolando, father Carlos and brother Sebastián all played football professionally, while mother Adriana was a basketball player. Even her two small dogs stick to the family's predominant football theme - Osorio Serrano has named them Neymar and Messi.
Though she's the first tennis player in the family, Osorio Serrano says that the athletic experience around her has been invaluable in developing her mental fortitude on court.
"All of them know sport and how it is to compete," she says. "How I feel on court or off the court, they understand, even if they're not tennis players. They always motivate me to fight. They don't care if I win or if I lose, they don't care about my results, but they care if I have a good attitude on court and that I never give up in anything I do - in life as well as in tennis."
The Copa Colsanitas has been around since 1998 and is one of the longest-running WTA 250 events on the calendar. The event has been a valuable nurturing ground for home players. Osorio Serrano was the third home winner in its history. Former World No.16 Fabiola Zuluaga was a four-time champion in 1999 and 2002-04. Mariana Duque-Mariño took the title in 2010, a performance that was watched by none other than a 9-year-old Osorio Serrano.
"In 2010 they also had a tournament for kids - 12 and under," Osorio Serrano says. "When Mariana won that year, I remember I was behind her in a crowd asking for a picture. I actually still have the picture here with me. And Mariana actually texted me congratulations after I won last week! When I was 9 I asked her for an autograph, and now she's saying congratulations to me!"
Osorio Serrano's links to previous Colombian legends are strong. Zuluaga attended her practice sessions the week before the tournament and is a frequent source of advice. During her title run, Osorio Serrano realised that she can be a similar link to the future of tennis in her home country.
"There was a little boy watching me all week," she says. "He came to the court when I was practising. He was like, 'Cami, can I get an autograph, can I hit some balls with you?' I said, sure. The whole week it felt like he was behind me, cheering a lot. They did a lockdown at the weekend, so he couldn't come to the semifinal, but he was in the apartment building overlooking the courts with a Colombian flag still cheering for me.
"And in the final, I remember I lost the first set and I was so tight. It was my first final and I was so nervous. Then I saw this kid and he was smiling at me, saying, 'Vamos, Cami, you can do it!' And I just forgot everything. I forgot I was playing the final and I just started smiling, enjoying it and celebrating towards him. He really helped me a lot.
"I hope I can motivate kids, especially in Colombia, to go for their dreams and that nothing is impossible. For me I remember I saw everything as really far away - I'm from a small city in Colombia, remember - but now I'm here, I won a title."
Osorio Serrano's heroics haven't gone unnoticed at home.
"The generational change in Colombian tennis is on the right track," says Edward Acero, a journalist with Caracol Radio who covered her title run. "The truth is that she made us forget for a moment the adversity that Colombia and the world are experiencing with Covid."
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For herself, Osorio Serrano is quickly getting used to the idea that she belongs at the top of the game and is particularly excited about being part of a group of four teenage WTA titlists in 2021 following Iga Swiatek in Adelaide, Clara Tauson in Lyon and Leylah Fernandez in Monterrey.
"You want to know a fun fact?" she said, laughing. "In 2019, Tauson won Australian Open juniors, right? And then Fernandez won the French Open and I won the US Open. And this year it was the same order - Tauson won first the title in Lyon, then Fernandez in Monterrey, then me in Bogota. It motivates me a lot, because I feel like I'm part of that group and I can do many things on the main tour. I hope to join them in the Top 100. That's my goal for the year. And hopefully more titles."