Athlete Spotlight: Marnie Perez Ochoa
Growing up, Marnie Perez Ochoa spent her summers with her grandparents in Mexico, where, as a family, they’d often play tennis together. Perez Ochoa would stand on one side of the net, and her grandparents would feed her balls so that she could practice her strokes.
“I hated my backhand, so I would tell them to only hit to my forehand,” Perez Ochoa recalls. “My grandpa would spoil me. He’d only hit to my forehand. But then my grandma would hit to my backhand. She’d say, ‘Oh sorry, it slipped!’ And [as a kid] I would buy it!”
It’s unlikely Perez Ochoa’s grandmother, Yola Ramirez, sent the ball in the wrong direction by accident—if her past pedigree in the sport is any indication. Ranked as high as No. 6 in the world, Ramirez is one of the best players ever to come out of Mexico. In 1958, with partner Rosie Reyes, she captured the women’s doubles title at the French Open (then called the French Championships). She would go on to twice reach the singles final of the same event—in 1960 and 1961—and achieve at least a quarterfinal berth at the other three majors, including a semifinal appearance in Australia in 1962. The year prior, on Centre Court at Wimbledon, she defeated a young Billie Jean King in a tough three-set match that would ultimately span two days after darkness suspended play midway through the contest. (King, who was making her debut at the All England Club, spoke about their battle earlier this summer during a ceremony commemorating the 100th anniversary of the venue.)
“She always says that she taught Rod Laver how to dance,” Perez Ochoa says of Ramirez’s time on tour. “But she remembers Rod very well. When we went to Wimbledon, he was there and he just gave her the sweetest hug when he saw her. And I never thought she was making anything up, but seeing him actually recognize her and know her, it was like, ‘Oh, wow.’”
To Perez Ochoa, of course, Ramirez was always just grandma—or, as she affectionately called her, Yayis. But there’s no doubt that the sport always remained a central facet of the family identity, transcending generations. Perez Ochoa’s grandfather, Alfonso Ochoa, also competed on tour, while both her mother and uncle played for Division I college teams, at Texas Christian University and North Carolina State, respectively. Perez Ochoa jokes that “she came out of the womb” with a racquet in her hand, though she estimates she was probably around three or four when she first stepped onto a court.
“It was just something that we all did as a family,” she says. “If we traveled, we'd always find a tennis court. A lot of our trips were centered around that. So it never really occurred to me that I didn't have to [participate].”
Regardless of whether it was her hobby or the family’s hobby, Perez Ochoa competed quite well, eventually receiving a full scholarship to play Division I tennis herself, for Chicago State University. Graduating debt free, she says, is one of her proudest accomplishments, and something that she was able to achieve directly through her experiences growing up surrounded by tennis. She also notes that the rigors and stresses inherent in the life of a student athlete helped set her up for future success in her career in computer science.
“You learn time management and that you have to prioritize,” she says. “You can’t do it all. Sometimes you have to spend extra time rehabbing your shoulder, or do things you don’t want to do. Your body is providing for you—that’s how I got my scholarship. So I wanted to keep it, and [to do that] you have to make tough choices. It teaches you to be disciplined and very tough. It's made me who I am today.”
When Perez Ochoa eventually moved to New York after graduation, she didn’t pack any racquets. She wanted to take a break from the sport and forge her own identity. But she quickly realized that tennis was always going to be a part of her—the game was in her genes, and she opted to embrace it. To make friends, she joined a corporate league, which held an event at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, Queens.
“I told my grandparents about it, and they were like, ‘Oh, we played the US Open there,’” Perez Ochoa says. “And I live very far away from the rest of my family, so it was really nice to feel connected to them. I just thought, ‘Wow, I get to walk the same path they did and play on the same courts they played on.’”
Due in part to those feelings of connection, Perez Ochoa decided to become a member at West Side. There, she quickly established a second tennis family. One fellow member is like a sister to her. She considers another, who has roots in Mexico and speaks Spanish, her “New York mom”.
“I live alone with my cat,” she says with a laugh. “During the pandemic, I remember being so scared to get COVID, because I thought I had nobody here. But I have them. And it's just really nice to know that I have someone I can call that's local and that will be there for me.”
Beyond relationships, the sport has also afforded Perez Ochoa some incredible experiences in her adopted city. She served as a volunteer at the US Open, where she got to work with special needs kids as part of an adaptive tennis demonstration. (It was just the most rewarding experience I've ever been a part of,” she recalls. “I remember we finished that shift and we were crying because we were just so happy that we got to be part of it.”) She recently organized a tournament fundraiser that ultimately raised $28,779 for the American Cancer Society, and later this fall, she’ll compete at the USTA League National Championships with her 10.0 Mixed League team. Her level today, she says, is better than her college-playing days—though she’s had to adjust her approach.
“Before I was just so hellbent on hitting something ESPN Top 10-worthy,” she says. “I was like, I have to hit the ball as hard as possible. Now, I have to be patient and problem-solve a little bit more. Every time you compete, it's like solving a new puzzle. And I think that that's what keeps me interested and keeps me wanting to play.”
And what’s her signature shot?
“It’s crazy, because my backhand is my favorite shot now,” she admits. “I’ll run around the ball to hit it.”
It appears her grandma had the right idea all those years ago.
Photos courtesy Marnie Perez Ochoa