Ranked No.180, Emiliana Arango was one of the latest direct entries into the Guadalajara Open Akron -- her debut in a WTA 1000 main draw. And what a debut it's been.
The Colombian proceeded to pull off the biggest upset of the first round, ousting No.11 seed Anastasia Potapova for her first career Top 30 win. She followed that with a 6-1, 6-2 defeat of Sloane Stephens and a 7-5, 1-6, 6-4 win over Taylor Townsend to become the first Colombian woman to make the quarterfinal stage at a WTA 1000 tournament since Fabiola Zuluaga at Berlin 2004.
It's been a long road for the 22-year-old from Medellín to get here, though. A former Top 10 junior who grew up competing with Camila Osorio and who reached the US Open junior semifinals in 2017, Arango has already had to overcome a series of injury setbacks in her career. In a recent interview with wtatennis.com, she explained how she's put them behind her with the help of her close-knit family.
Arango's first breakthrough was on home soil
Arango's first eye-catching pro result came back at Bogota 2018. As a 17-year-old wild card ranked No.510, she scored her first Top 100 win, over Veronica Cepede Royg in the first round, then backed it up by beating Jasmine Paolini to make her first quarterfinal.
But no sooner had Arango announced herself than she was halted in her tracks. A hip injury forced her to retire against eventual champion Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, which eventually sidelined her for six months.
"It was really a struggle, it was not fun," Arango said. "I felt really bad for a long time there. Even when I was playing I'd feel pain. It took me a little while to feel strong. And it took the fun away from playing. I couldn't turn around, I couldn't hit my forehand like I wanted. I felt people could see it and target it. I was very insecure and it wasn't a good feeling."
Repeated setbacks have made Arango resilient
Having fallen outside the Top 1,000 by August 2019, Arango made her way back up to the brink of the Top 500 by March 2020.
"As I was finally getting into a rhythm, COVID hit and that wasn't fun for anyone," she said. "Then after that, just as I was playing really good tennis again, I hurt my knee and that one took a bit longer. Most of 2022, I wasn't feeling confident with my game, my knee or my health."
Another seven months out for Arango -- between November 2021 and May 2022 -- took another toll on her ranking. She'd climbed to No.235 by the end of 2021, but a year later found herself back down at No.444. But the frustration ultimately served to strengthen her.
"Above all, I learned that I'm very resilient," she said. "I've endured all that and I'm still able to work so hard and come out to get my game to higher levels and strive to be better.
"I've changed the exercises I do. I started working out fitness-wise differently, using different things, searching for exercises that will help my body stay healthy and to prevent my previous injuries flaring up. Finally I was able to do a good pre-season [at the end of 2022], and I've been able to step on it this year."
Arango's family helped her through the tough times ...
Highlights of Arango's 2023 season have included her first Grand Slam qualifying wins at Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open, moments she says gave her "goosebumps." Coincidentally, her uncle was on holiday in London during Wimbledon -- and Arango's progress meant he had to extend it by a day.
It was a full-circle moment for Arango, whose close-knit family on her mother's side were instrumental to keeping her career afloat. Her injury setbacks had occurred before she'd cracked the Top 200, meaning that she'd had to spend over a year in total unable to earn prize money before building up any sort of financial cushion.
"I consider myself very, very lucky that I have a family who supported me," she said. "Starting from my mom, her parents, their siblings -- everyone chipped in. I don't have enough words or actions to say thank you. Without them I wouldn't be here. They know where I've come from and how I've got here."
... But she's the only sporty one in the family
Arango's family may have been supportive, but they weren't especially sporty. In fact, she got her start in sport precisely because of this.
"No one else in my family plays any sports," she said. "My older brother had lessons, and I had to go with him. But he was really bad, and the coach suggested I hit instead -- and he stopped, and I stuck with it. He was never really into sports, and before he never wanted to go to any tournaments. But now he plans his vacations around mine."
Arango hasn't stopped trying to convert her family, though. She now lives in Miami with her mother, Juliana, and her "baby boy," Oreo the 4-year-old miniature Australian shepherd. These days, she is intent on insisting that her distinctly reluctant mother tries kayaking with her.
Arango grew up alongside Camila Osorio
Three years after Arango's quarterfinal run in Bogota, another Colombian teenager thrilled her home crowd as a wild card ranked outside the Top 100. In 2021, Camila Osorio claimed the title and has since firmly established herself on tour.
The pair have known each other for most of their lives.
"We first met when she was maybe 7, and I was 8," Arango said. "We played this junior tournament in Colombia and we met in the finals. I hadn't heard of her but everyone was telling me, 'Oh man, you're going to lose, she's just so good, you have no idea.' I remember being like, 'I have no idea who this girl is but I'm not losing.' I just had it in my head that there was no way. And I got her that time.
"Then obviously we kept playing, we grew up together. It's been good fun. She's very chill and very funny. At Billie Jean King Cup we always have a good time. I love how well Camila's doing, I'm super happy for her and I really hope she can find her best level -- I don't think she's found it yet and I think she has more to give."
For the record, Arango also won the pair's only completed official meeting 6-2, 7-6(6) in the final of a 2017 junior event in Mar del Plata, Argentina. (She also retired while leading by a set in their only pro encounter, at the 2019 Colina ITF W60 event.) She's motivated by the idea that the two young Colombians can spearhead a tennis wave in their country, though is also aware of the systemic barriers in play.
"I wish we could be like Argentina on the guys' side," she said. "They had 10 players or something in Grand Slam qualies this year. That would be really cool. If we had more tournaments it would help. We don't have a lot of the infrastructure, we don't have a lot of public courts where people can just go and play tennis cheaply."