The 23 women gathered at the Akron WTA Finals Guadalajara are, by the definition of a year-end championship, the best in the business.
As you might expect, this is the career culmination for a number of athletes who all possess remarkable narratives.
Six of the eight singles players are here for the first time, four of them posting their best ranking on the cusp of the year-end tournament.
How’s that for finishing strong?
Barbora Krejcikova, the surprise French Open champion, is so fresh, she’s still got points from three ITF tournaments on her ledger. Anett Kontaveit had to win 26 of 28 matches – and four titles in 10 weeks – to secure an invitation. Paula Badosa joined them in the Top 10 with a lights-out victory at Indian Wells.
But even in a field loaded with backstories, consider the case of Giuliana Olmos. She might be the longest of shots in Guadalajara.
Born in Austria, raised in California and playing under the Mexican flag, Olmos and doubles partner Sharon Fichman were crowd favorites Thursday night when they took the court for their first match. It was a tough assignment. Wearing a red, green and white ribbon – the Mexican colors – in her braided hair, Olmos and Fichman fell in straight sets to Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova, three-time major champions and Olympic gold medal winners in Tokyo.
“Honestly – this sounds bad – but even though we lost I don’t actually feel like we lost because I just felt so much love and support from everybody who was there,” Olmos said a day later. “And it was definitely the loudest crowd I’ve ever played in front of. At one point, I remember telling Sharon, `I feel like we’re at a soccer game,’ it was so loud.”
Olmos, 28, and Fichman, 30, actually qualified 10th in the Porsche Race to the WTA Finals, but got in when the teams of Coco Gauff/Caty McNally and Gabriela Dabrowski/Luisa Stefani withdrew. It’s the first year-end appearance for both.
Olmos, on a hunch, was playing an ITF $80,000 event in Texas two weeks ago in case they got the call.
“I was at my housing family’s home. And I got an email from Steve [Simon, the WTA’s chief executive officer] that we got in,” Olmos said. “I was just like so excited and so happy. Especially that it was in Mexico, I sort of feel like it was meant to be.”
They’re playing for a $1 million doubles prize pool, with the winners splitting $360,000, finalists $190,000 and losing semifinalists $110,000. That’s a huge potential chunk of change for Olmos, whose career winnings are $437,000.
Giuliana Olmos celebrating playing in front of an excited home crowd with some patriotic hair details.. pic.twitter.com/AHAxb67yYM— Jimmie48 Photography (@JJlovesTennis) November 12, 2021
A WTA regular since 2017, Olmos messaged Fichman during the offseason, asking if she’d be interested in playing the first three tournaments in Australia. They played together for the first time at Abu Dhabi, winning a match before falling to Krejcikova and Hsieh Su-wei.
“And then we made the quarterfinals at the Australian Open,” Olmos said. And we were like, `Hey, maybe we’re not so bad together.’
“When I play, I just try to have a lot of fun. It takes away a lot of stress for me. And I think for Sharon that was maybe something she was missing a little bit. I think we just balanced each other really well.”
The real breakthrough came in Rome, where they beat two of the teams in Guadalajara, Hsieh/Elise Mertens and Ena Shibahara/Shuko Aoyama The funny thing? They came through the back door in Italy, originally as alternates.
“We were underdogs,” Olmos said. “And I think that mentality – `We have nothing to lose’ – helped us play freely. Anytime I play now, whether or not I’m supposed to win on paper, I just pretend that I’m always the underdog because that helps me play my best tennis.
“I honestly think we had the hardest draw. I think any match we played there could have been a finals. We saved match points in two matches, actually, quarters and finals. I knew I was good enough to hang with the best, but I think that week I learned I was good enough to beat the best players.”
It’s been a long, long time coming.
That long story short: Her grandmother, originally from Mexico, met her grandfather in Europe, fell in love and moved to Austria. When Olmos’ mother Marion was 20, her mother sent her to Mexico to learn the culture and language. That’s where she met Olmos’ father, Roman. Olmos was born in Schwarzach, Austria, and moved to Fremont, California, when she was 2 years old. Her father’s first job supporting the family was flipping hamburgers at Burger King. Roman introduced her to tennis.
Olmos joined the ITF circuit in 2008 at the age of 15 and one year later made the decision to represent Mexico.
“There were some financial incentives back then, and I was offered a spot of the Junior Fed Cup team,” Olmos said. “That was a big thing. So I got to play Junior Fed Cup and Fed Cup and then I’ve been able to play the Central and Pan American Games and then this year I was able to go to the Olympics for Mexico, which was really cool. I’m not sure I would have had the same opportunity if I’d played for the U.S.”
At the University of Southern California – the best four years of her life – she learned the art and craft of doubles and something even more important from head coach Richard Gallien.
“He would always tell me, `First the smile, then the tennis,’” Olmos said. “That’s why I try to smile a lot. He always had a lot of belief that I could transition and make it on tour.”
In 2018, she became the first Mexican player in the Open Era to reach a WTA final, with Desirae Krawczyk at Monterrey. Today, Olmos finds herself at a career-high No.23 in doubles – and showcased in Guadalajara. She’s enjoyed the tournament build-up, the draw gala, mingling with the other players.
“For me to be a part of that group, I feel very honored and privileged to be here,” Olmos said. “Just so excited I can be here representing Mexico – in Mexico. It’s a very big deal.
“When I go back and think about it, only the top eight teams can play here, and you really have to be winning the most matches. And when I think about how … I did that, it’s like – I don’t know, it’s kind of crazy to think that I did that. So, it’s very surreal and very exciting and I’m very proud of myself.”