TENNIS IS A SYNONYM
Paul Ryan | October 8, 2018
The Gonzalez Family at the ITHF in 2013
Everyone gets into tennis differently. No two stories are alike.
For Javier and Natalya Gonzalez, their paths started on opposite sides of the U.S.
“My older brother Mauricio was into all sports,” Javier says. “His biggest ambition in high school was to earn a varsity letter. My father, a civil engineer who had immigrated to the U.S. from South America, wouldn’t let him go out for football for fear of getting injured. Mauricio next tried basketball, but he narrowly missed the cut. Then he tried swimming but lasted only one week after he came down with an ear infection.
“Not one to give up easily, he discovered that the school had a tennis team. He got a hold of World Tennis Magazine and found out that being a lefty was advantageous in tennis. That’s the day he decided he wanted to be a tennis player. He quickly understood that he needed a tennis buddy to help him practice and that’s how I got into tennis.”ADVERTISEMENT
From then on, Javier was hooked and eventually became the junior champion of middle Illinois. After Mauricio went off to college, Javier recruited younger brother Fernando to be his tennis buddy. They grew up in Urbana, Illinois, the same hometown as acclaimed author David Foster Wallace (who was also an avid tennis player and regionally ranked growing up).
Urbana is well over 2,000 miles from Berkeley, California, where Natalya got her start playing tennis. Natalya’s father, a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from MIT, worked as a professor and chairman of the Department of Applied Sciences at the University of California, Berkeley. As a result, the family joined the Berkeley Tennis Club.
When she was just 12, Natalya and her father saw a flyer for a tournament a few weeks out. With no tennis experience (just like Javier’s family before Mauricio picked up the sport), they marked the date down on the calendar that Natalya was to play in her first tournament.
“She showed up in a white tennis dress with her racquet ready to play,” Javier says. “But they were such novices, they didn’t realize you had to sign up and send in an application weeks in advance.”
After the initial hiccup, Natalya picked up the sport almost instantly, rapidly moving up the junior rankings in California. By the time she was 18, she was ranked 21 in the nation in Girls 18 singles and top 10 for Girls doubles, playing and holding her own against future stars such as Tracy Austin, Pam Shriver and Brad Gilbert’s older sister, Dana.
Despite being first generation tennis players, both Javier and Natalya proved they were ready to take the next step. The two also demonstrated their strength in the classroom, earning themselves spots on the Harvard and Yale tennis teams, respectively.
Javier served as captain of the Harvard freshman team and Natalya continued to rack up the accolades. She was a two-time captain of the Bulldogs varsity team and led the squad to back-to-back Ivy League titles in 1980 and 1981. Despite being at rival colleges, Javier visited Yale where his brother Mauricio was attending school.
“Whenever I went to visit my brother, I would read about Natalya in the Yale Daily News. She was the big tennis star from California at the time. While I was visiting my brother, I happened to ride in the same elevator as she, but we didn’t speak to each other at all.”
The two didn’t formally meet until about a decade later when they both worked in New York City. Javier took Natalya, where else, to a tennis court for their first date. With Javier working as a corporate lawyer and Natalya as an investment banker in lower Manhattan, a court on a pier across from the South Street Seaport near Wall Street served as the backdrop for their meet-up.
The romance blossomed and that was the start of the Gonzalez tennis family. The couple had two children, Xavier and Natasha, who got their start playing tennis in California but moved to Texas in 2005. “Tennis became our family sport when we introduced our children at a young age,” Javier says. It was here in the Lone Star State that they got their first true taste of tournament tennis.
“The first tournament that Xavier played in was the Houston Fall Festival in 2005 in the 10 & Under Division,” Javier recalls. “He lost in the first round of the main draw. He drew a very strong player—Will Showers--who defeated him handily and he was discouraged. He said to me, ‘papa, do you think I’ll ever win a tennis match?’”
Xavier, in fact, won his remaining five matches in the tournament, taking the consolation draw after being shut out by his first-round opponent. He continued to grow from there, winning well over 500 USTA matches in his junior career.
Xavier achieved a number one ranking in Texas in both Boys 14 and Boys 16 and a top 5 ranking in Boys 18. Along the way, he won two National Opens in singles. In high school tennis, he was a two-time captain, three-time MVP and All-Conference at Houston’s St. John’s School. He was also named a High School All-American. Xavier even followed in his father’s footsteps, attending Harvard and playing on the varsity tennis team.
Sister Natasha followed suit, joining the Crimson in 2016. Natasha also had a successful junior career, achieving top 10 rankings in Texas in G12, G14 and G16 and captaining St. John’s School in Houston for her junior and senior year. In addition, she was named Team MVP and All-Conference her final three years. At Harvard, during the 2016-2017 season, both brother and sister were fortunate to play on Ivy League championship teams. The men’s team included fellow Texans Jean Thirouin (co-captain) and Grant Solomon, both of whom would be on the Prentice Cup team in the summer of 2018.
The siblings have also excelled in the classroom. In high school, both were members of the Cum Laude Honor Society, National Merit Scholars and AP National Scholars.
Xavier made his mark in national math competitions and Natasha did the same in national essay and short-story writing contests. They have continued to maintain their academic performance in college, gaining recognition as ITA Scholar-Athletes. At the 2014 US Open, Xavier was honored with the USTA National Junior Scholar-Athlete Award.
The two have used tennis as a bond, learning a great deal from their parents and other family members. The kids are related to 10 Harvard graduates, many who were varsity athletes themselves. This includes their aunt Erika Smith, who graduated in 1985 and was an All-Ivy tennis player in both singles and doubles, has won numerous Gold Balls in senior women’s tennis. “She has been a positive and strong influence on both Xavier and Natasha,” according to Javier. And Uncle Fernando, who became a medical doctor and moved to Santa Fe, is an avid recreational player who has retained the legendary Jimmy Parker (former Head Pro at the Houston Racquet Club) as his coach. He, too, has been a big supporter of Xavier and Natasha.
“Xavier and Natasha are best friends. They complement each other. They really enjoy playing mixed doubles together, a pairing that Texas Tennis Hall of Fame coach Chris Bovett encouraged. Tennis allows parents and children to bond in a very special way. Oftentimes, one parent would take one child to a tournament in one city and the other parent would take the other child to a different tournament location. So either I would take Xavier to one tournament while Natalya took Natasha to another tournament or vice versa.
“This allowed for a great deal of bonding one-on-one. Family vacations during winter, spring, summer and fall breaks were usually trips to tennis tournaments all over Texas and all over the U.S.”
The family uses their love for tennis, as well as their Hispanic Heritage, to help build an inclusive community. In high school, Natasha served as president of the Hispanic Affinity Group and was recently featured in Latina Style Magazine. Some years ago, Xavier penned a prize-winning essay on Pancho Gonzalez for the USTA, noting that it was both an honor and a responsibility to have the same surname (even though there is no family relationship) as one of the greatest tennis players of all time.
Natalya is not Hispanic (her heritage is English, German and French-Canadian), but Javier’s parents are from Bolivia, a country that Mauricio has represented in the Junior Davis Cup. Natalya has already visited there and one day would like to repeat the visit, but this time with both of her children.
“We’re proud of our Hispanic Heritage,” Javier says. “It’s something we would like to continue to explore. We are looking forward to traveling with the entire family to South America to see the sights, visit with family and friends and even play in a tennis tournament or two.”
Although the family hasn’t been able to go to South America yet, they did get the chance to head to Spain during the summer of 2017 to attend a family wedding. In their time there, they found out a very important truth to life with a ball and racquet.
“During our trip to Seville, Spain, we dropped in on a local tennis club – the Real Club de Tenis Betis – and they welcomed us right away. Xavier was able to play on a yellowish-orange sandstone court surface commonly used in Andalusia for bullrings as well as tennis courts. As my tennis buddy from La Jolla Chico Hagey says, ‘being a tennis player gives you an advantage because you can make friends instantly anywhere in the world.’ ”
Along the way, the Gonzalez family has made good and enduring friendships with other Houston tennis families, including the Walkers, the Maciels, the Leongs, the Thirouins, the Lampasas, the Giammalvas, the Fowlers, the Pradaps, the Lyns, the Shins, the Johnstons, among many others. The Gonzalez family looks forward to making even more friends through tennis as they continue on in life. They see the sport of tennis as a great big banquet, a feast of friendly competition, to which all are invited. They are grateful to USTA Texas for its commitment both to pursue excellence in the sport as well as to widen inclusion and diversity.
Not surprisingly, this focus on friendship has produced good sportsmanship. On the court, the duo has won their fair share of awards in this category as well. Xavier won a Texas Boys Sportsmanship Award three years straight at the Grand Slam Sectional Championships by vote of his peers, as well as the Texas Section’s 2014 John McFarlin Award (for the Texas junior who exemplifies citizenship, leadership and sportsmanship) and the 2012 Bill Talbert National Jr. Sportsmanship Award, while Natasha won three Texas sportsmanship awards of her own, including the Zina Garrison G16 Sportsmanship Award, by vote of her peers.
Brother and sister haven’t rested on their laurels, either. In August 2017, Xavier won the Men's Open Doubles title with Harry Fowler at the USTA National Grass Court Championships at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island. Meanwhile, in August 2017, Natasha won three of her matches for the International Club of the USA against the International Club of Great Britain in the 2017 edition of the Ted Avory Cup (won by the USA). During the tournament, Natasha defeated Amanda Elliott, who competed in the main draw of Wimbledon back in 2008 and 2009. Natasha won in straight sets. And, in July 2018 Natasha won the women’s singles championship at the ITA Oracle Summer Circuit tournament hosted by Wellesley College.
And in the biggest family news this past year, Xavier was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship in November 2017 to study at Oxford University in England. Xavier becomes just the fifth men’s tennis player to earn the distinction and 55th Harvard student-athlete to earn it since 1920. This gives Xavier an opportunity to continue a family tradition started by his uncle Mauricio, who studied at Oxford in 1978-80 on a Marshall Scholarship and earned a “varsity blue” in tennis.
Tennis has been very generous to the Gonzalez family. They are grateful for all the support and encouragement they have received over the years from so many members of the Texas tennis family. From professional staff, coaches and tournament directors to umpires, fellow players and tennis parents, this family has been touched.
It’s no surprise that the Gonzalez’s are seen as a model tennis family. They show no matter where you start – whether it’s in Berkeley, Urbana, Houston or anywhere else in the world – tennis can bring people together. And most important, it can be life changing.