American Irina Falconi scored a big win in the first round of the Oracle Challenger Series Houston on Tuesday, defeating Argentina’s Nadia Podoroska 6-4, 6-1 in a chilly and breezy day at Rice University.
“Being able to utilize the wind and also negate it was super important today,” said Falconi. “You have to put a lot of shape on the ball when you’re with the wind and have a lot of margin. And when you’re against it, you pretty much have to hit the crap out of the ball, harder than what you typically would.”
Podoroska recently won the Gold Medal at the Pan-American games, which is played on clay, her favorite surface by a country mile.
“She’s a great mover and I could tell she was looking for her forehand, so there were just a few tactics I had to keep her honest. I’m kind of annoying to play against – I slice and dice a lot. Not a lot of players love to play against me.”
In her next match, Falconi will play Patricia Maria Tig, who is back after having her first child a year ago and already nearing the top 100. The Romanian made a triumphant return to her home tournament in Bucharest in July, upsetting World No.11 Anastasija Sevastova en route to the final and is the No.5 seed in Houston.
“I played Mandy Minella a few weeks ago,” said Falconi, referencing a loss to the Luxembourg native who is also returning from having a child. “And I told her, ‘Girl, are you sure you had a baby?’ I asked her twice – I wanted proof! It just goes to show how strong these women are, to have a baby, travel and still be top 200 in the world. That’s unreal to me.”
At the 2018 US Open, Falconi fell in the first round of qualifying and then played the Oracle Challenger Series Chicago the week after, but she felt something was amiss. Despite a couple good wins, she had no interest in hitting or competing.
“I won my first match and was then playing Michaella Krajicek, who was taking every point like it was the last point. She was so fired up, and I’m over here hating the experience even though I was winning.”
After her tournament ended, she called her boyfriend and told him that she was pulling out of the next tournament – a WTA International event in Quebec City. She informed the WTA that she needed a break for an undetermined amount of time.
“I was so burned out. I don’t know how to explain it, but I was just at the point where I wasn’t happy.”
During this time, Falconi was coaching some juniors and started her own local meal prep business, taking time to reset and recharge. Through conversations with her boyfriend and her older sister late summer 2019, however, she came to the realization that it was now or never to capitalize on her tennis talents. After more than a year off, Falconi came back to the pro circuit in September and hasn’t looked back.
“A few weeks ago, I got my first ranking since coming back of 700 in the world, and I was ecstatic. That says a lot about how happy I am to be playing again. I played my first match against Vicky Duval in Templeton. I just remember being so emotional after the match. I knew I was in a good place because right after the coin toss, I couldn’t stop smiling.”
This week in Houston, Falconi has had another focus outside of winning her own matches – supporting her good friend and fellow “comeback queen” CiCi Bellis. When either one has played this week, the other has been in the stands watching and cheering. On Tuesday, they played back-to-back on Court 2 and both notched wins – Bellis’ coming in a tough 3rdset tiebreaker against Varvara Lepchenko.
“CiCi is like the little sister I never had, she’s such a good kid,” said Falconi after coming off the court from watching Bellis’ 2hr 25min victory.
Their friendship began while both were training in Boca Raton after a then-15-year-old Bellis beat World No.12 Dominika Cibulkova at the 2014 US Open. Despite a nine-year age difference, Falconi congratulated her on her big win and offered to practice with Bellis, and the tradition continued every day after that while in Florida. It was a moment Bellis did not forget, bringing it up to her good friend years later.
Bellis is making her comeback to competition after a 20-month absence and multiple wrist surgeries, but the camaraderie she and Falconi share has helped both of them.
“It’s been fun, because in my comeback, she’s been coming back as well,” noted Falconi. “So although we haven’t been going through the same thing by any means, it’s still the process of getting back on court. We’ve just become really good friends.”
Between cooking competitions and last-second vacations to the Bahamas, their friendship has blossomed both on the circuit and in their personal lives. But with a bit more experience, Falconi has been able to give her friend some advice on this crucial moment in her career.
“She just got the wild card for Houston a couple weeks ago, which was a really big deal. All I said, was ‘Hey, take every moment day by day. Don’t worry about anything. And above all, be happy that you’re on court.”
With both back on court in Houston and winning matches, the dynamic duo bring positivity to each other and their peers and are enjoying the journey back to the top of the game.