Sports Tennis

UH tennis freshman Gabriela Cortes refuses to give up

Gabriela Cortes has flourished in her first year, going 10-2 in singles play. | Joe Buvid/UH Athletics

When a teammate or coach talks about freshman tennis player Gabriela Cortes, one word always comes up: fighter.

No matter the circumstances, Cortes is going to go all out, battling until the end. And this season, it has almost always ended with her as the victor.

“She’s somebody that’s going to leave it all on the court,” said head coach Helena Besovic. 

Despite not entering the lineup until the fourth match of the season against Elon and playing, Cortes has earned her way to a 10-2 singles record, tied for second-most wins on the team as well as a team-best winning percentage of .833.

Cortes’ fight has especially shown itself in her closer matches. In all three games in which Cortes dropped the first set, she came back to win.

Against Rice’s Maria Budin, she scratched and clawed her way back after losing the first set early on, finding herself in a tiebreaker in the final set. With the pressure on, gritted her teeth and pulled out the win, clinching the Cougars’ first win over Rice in 20 years.

But this is simply how Cortes was raised.

“My mom and my dad always pushed me that however you play, just fight,” Cortes said. “It doesn’t matter the score or anything, just give it your all.”

Born in the United States but raised in Cochabamba, Bolivia, by her Bolivian father, Agustin, and Russian mother, she spent her days as a toddler going to tennis tournaments with her father and brother.

Her father picked up tennis when he founded Club Municipal de Tenis for the city of Cochabamba, and when Cortes and her brother were born, tennis immediately became their life. Seemingly every waking hour was spent either playing or talking about the sport.

“I grew up in a tennis family,” Cortes said. “My dad went to tennis tournaments while I was still in diapers and I was building castles with the dirt.”

By their early teens, Cortes and her brother were waking up at 5 a.m. to practice on a wall outside their house. Then after school and training, they would spend the rest of the day honing their skills on a nearby racquetball court before going for a night-time run with their mother.

Soon enough, Cortes was competing heavily in junior tournaments, improving her ranking and facing tough competition from around the world.

During all of her traveling and competing, her mother was there with her. Cortes credits her fighting spirit to her mom, who refused to let Cortes accept any limits placed on her.

“I have that side that I fight a lot for things because she’s like that,” Cortes said.

That spirit, and the countless hours of work guided Cortes to improve rapidly. At the age of 15, she made her first appearance in the Billie Jean King Cup regional competitions in 2019.

“It was a really good experience for me because I went with the best players from my country,” Cortes said. “Because of that (experience), when I went to the tennis court, I could see from a different perspective.”

Two years later, and after rediscovering her love of tennis with a new coach, Cortes made her way back to the Billie Jean King Cup as the number two player for Bolivia. This time, she got to play on her home soil in La Paz, in front of a massive audience.

“I was so nervous, my first ball went two courts away,” Cortes remembered. “My body was shaking so much.”

She quickly got settled however, and won her first three matches to help Bolivia comfortably move on and win its pool before ultimately coming short in a play-off against Guatemala. In a preview of things to come, Cortes won her final via a close final-set tiebreaker.

Cortes ended up as the 219th-ranked junior by the ITF, and decided to go to college to continue improving and gain experience. When she learned about UH after the team showed interest, it was no doubt where she wanted to be.

“We started to research the university, and it was everything that I wanted,” Cortes said. “This is my dream school.”

After some on-again-off-again communication, Cortes received a scholarship offer from Besovic and the rest was history.

“The difference with her was that she was so committed, and she really wanted it,” Besovic said. “She has a very good energy in her, and I remember she really, really wanted to come to Houston.”

“It was like the best day of my life,” Cortes said. “I was like ‘if everything in the world goes down right now, I’m like the happiest person.'”

When Cortes joined in the fall of 2022, she was pleasantly surprised to see the team welcome her with such open arms. It did not take long for her to fit in with a squad full of players from all over the world.

I don’t know how the girls get along so well,” Cortes said. “Having that environment makes you want to come every day with happiness. It helps you on the court.”

“Everyone is from different countries, so we really understand each other,” said Argentine senior Azul Pedemonti, who has grown especially close with Cortes. “(Gabriela and I) are both South Americans, and we speak Spanish. So I think that connection is a little bit stronger. You feel closer to home, I guess.”

When it came time to play in the spring, it took time for Cortes get comfortable. She put immense pressure on herself to show Besovic that she belonged, and found herself playing nervously.

“It was tough,” Cortes said. “I wanted to show coach that I could play and be a part of the lineup.”

However, after one of her early matches, she received encouragement through a text from Besovic, assuring her that she would be a regular in the lineup sooner rather than later. That was all it took for Cortes to settle in.

“One important thing is to have trust in you,” Cortes said. “I felt that I could be myself playing on the court, and along the way the results came with me.”

Even though Cortes has flourished on and off the court in her first year at Houston, she says none of it could happen without the support of her mother, whom she calls everyday. If Cortes had any problems, questions, or worries, Cortes’ mother has been there, eager to help her daughter thousands of miles away.

“I couldn’t imagine if I didn’t have my mom to call,” Cortes said. “If I didn’t have that little help I would go crazy.”

With her mother’s support, and the confidence from her coaches and peers, Cortes found her groove. At this point, Pedemonti says it seems like she is already a veteran.

“I’ve been through what she’s going through, but I think she adapted so much better than me,” Pedemonti said. “It’s like she’s been here for four years.”

With the American Conference Championships starting April 19, Cortes’ maturity and competitive fire will become a huge factor, not just for her, but for her team as well.

“She’s very loud, expressive, in a positive way,” Besovic said. “Which helps her on the court but also helps her teammates to bring that energy.”

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