By J. Fred Sidhu
Fabiola Zuluaga, Colombia’s most famous tennis player, is coming to Southern California to play in the Pacific Life Open tennis tournament, which begins Monday at the Indian Wells Garden in the nearby Coachella Valley.
Last Sunday, Zuluaga won her fifth career WTA Tour singles title as she defeated Spain’s Maria Sanchez Lorenzo, 3-6, 6-4, 6-2 to capture the $170,000 Copa Colsanitas in Bogota.
Zuluaga, who is almost unbeatable in Bogota, has now won the title in her hometown a total of four years including the last three years in a row.
When she was growing up in Colombia, she admired Argentina’s Gabriela Saba-tini and she idolized her compatriots, pop singer, Shakira, and Formula One race car driver, Juan Pablo Montoya.
Today, Colombians idolize the 25-year-old Zuluaga, who reached the singles semifinals at the Australian Open in January and reached a career high ranking of 21 in the world.
Despite being a tennis professional since 1994, Zuluaga was not widely known in tennis circles outside of Colombia, that is until she shocked the tennis world by reaching the final four of one of the biggest tennis tournaments in the world.
“I’m really happy about what I’ve done,” Zuluaga said when asked about her performance in Australia. “It’s good that it’s at the beginning of the year because it gives me a lot of confidence and it makes me feel good about what I’ve done these past three months, which was practicing, practicing, practicing.”
The practice paid off for Zuluaga when she arrived in Melbourne for the Australian Open. She faced Japan’s Shinobu Asagoe in the first round. Asagoe had easily defeated Zuluaga the week before in a small warm-up in Hobart, Australia.
This time it was Zuluaga who gained the upper hand as she eliminated Asagoe, 6-3, 6-2. Zuluaga won three more matches to reach the quarterfinals where she was scheduled to play heavily-favored Amelie Mauresmo of France.
However, Mauresmo had to withdraw from the tournament with a muscle strain in her back, allowing Zul-uaga to advance to the semifinals, where she lost to the number one player in the world, Justine Henin-Hardenne.
With her brilliant showing in Australia, Zuluaga hopes that tennis will become more popular in Colombia. “A lot of people follow it (tennis), but soccer is the main sport there, now also Formula One,” Zuluaga said.
“Hopefully now, tennis will be the main sport. It’s tough to get sponsors (in Colombia) because all the money goes to soccer,” she said. “Hopefully, my win will help get people more interested.”
Zuluaga’s love for her native country runs deep. After winning her hometown tournament in Bogota for the third time last year, she dedicated her title to Colombia and as she addressed the crowd, she described Colombia as, “a country that cries, that suffers, but doesn’t give up.”
With her breakthrough in Australia, Zuluaga found herself ranked in the top 25, but what makes her rise in the tennis rankings even more spectacular is the fact she missed almost all of the 2001 tennis season due to two right shoulder surgeries for a rotator cuff injury and a fracture.
Zuluaga credits playing matches with men for helping her game. “I’ve played many matches against Colombian guys. When I’m at home, I usually just play against the guys. They hit the ball very hard, so I have to really work. It’s good practice for me, so when I play the women, I feel like I can handle the power,” she said.
She is making her second career appearance in Indian Wells. In last year’s tournament, she advanced to the second round when she gave top-seeded Kim Clijsters of Belgium a tough match before she lost 6-3, 7-5. Clijsters went on to win the tournament and later in the year, would become the number one player in the world.
Zuluaga, who is engaged to be married in December, has set her goal at finishing the year ranked in the top 20 in the world. “I know it’s hard, but if I keep going like this, maybe it will come true,” she said.
The Zuluaga File
Born: January 7, 1979 in Cacuta, Colombia
Lives: Bogota, Colombia
Plays: Right-handed with a two-handed backhand
Ranking: 23 (as of 3/1/04)
Career highlights: Has won five singles titles on the WTA Tour including four titles in Bogota.
Factoid: By reaching the singles semifinals of the 2004 Australian Open, Zuluaga became the first player from Colombia, male or female, to accomplish the feat in a major tennis tournament.