Natalie Martinez - Member Profile
Former college basketball Natalie Martinez has found a new obsession to help replace an old one, with the bulk of her time now spent on a tennis court instead of a blacktop or indoor gym. This Albuquerque native was a child star and former three-time All-State basketball player at Rio Grande High before ending up with a college scholarship to play for the famed Kentucky Wildcats.
She's been done with basketball for more than a decade, and she has sunk the same dedication that made her a great baller into becoming a top tennis player. She's been a quick study, going from 3.5 to 4.5 in just a few short years, and has given herself a heavy dose of competition to get her there, by frequently playing in tournaments and leagues (17 League teams since 2005).
We chose Martinez as our March Active Forever Member profile because it just seemed a natural fit. We recently caught up with her to hear about her transition from basketball to tennis has been going, and, of course to get her March Madness bracket picks. Don't worry, she's bracket busted like many of us).
USTASW: It's March and March Madness now and you have a great story as a former college basketball player coming into tennis. Was tennis just a whim after basketball was over? Tell us how you got started and how you ultimately found yourself in the game of tennis.
NM: After playing overseas in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, I was invited to training camp for the Los Angeles Sparks of the WNBA. When I didn’t make the team, I knew my professional basketball days were over. I had always wanted to try my hand at tennis. I grew up watching the Slams on television with my Mom Mary Ida, and my Dad Joe. I really enjoyed watching Agassi, Sampras, Graf, Sabatini, Capriati…I was told to go see Joe Felice at the Albuquerque Country Club in 2005-2006. He outfitted me in my first racquet and gave me my first lesson. I was hooked!
USTASW: Growing up playing basketball in Albuquerque, you ended up out in the Blue Grass State, and playing basketball for Kentucky - Big Blue! Talk a little about that. I'm sure playing Div. 1 college basketball and all those fun arenas was an incredible experience?
NM: Every kid who loves playing basketball has dreams and aspirations to play for a big time college basketball program. I was fortunate enough to have been recruited and signed by Kentucky. It was definitely a big decision to leave home and my family, but having the opportunity to play for the Big Blue Nation, in the best conference in the nation for women’s basketball (SEC) and playing on ESPN and in front of thousands of fans was definitely a GREAT experience for me.
Kentuckians bleed blue for basketball. Basketball is a way of life out there and the men’s and women’s program is met with high expectations year in and year out to vie for the National Championship. I was very fortunate to be able to watch Rick Pitino’s & Tubby Smith’s Cats practice for four years and learn the game from watching. Tubby Smith’s Cat’s won the Championship in 98’ and boy did we celebrate! It was a great time to be a Wildcat!
USTASW: Talk a little about the transition from being a basketball player to becoming a tennis player? Obviously you were a good athlete, so that helped in picking it up. Explain your frustrations and progress in becoming a tennis player.
NM: I was told that because I was an athlete, I would pick up tennis quite fast. I would agree that I may have had the footwork and speed coming from basketball, but I learned quickly that tennis is so much more. Tennis is very technical and in order to have a well- rounded tennis game, you must have that balance of athleticism, strategy and great technique.
Like basketball, I didn’t want to pick up bad habits so I made sure to study the game by watching the pros (Federer). Tennis is about great footwork, balance, form, great stroke production, power, finesse and strategy. My early frustration came from wanting to be a good player right away. I realized I needed to put in the practice time on the court day in and day out just to play "catch up" with all of the other tennis players who had been playing for years.
USTASW: What's more nerve-wracking - shooting a game-tying free throw with just a few ticks left on the clock, or serving a second serve in a tight three-set match down match point?
NM: I would have to say shooting a game-tying free throw is more nerve-wracking because you are not in it just for yourself, you are shooting to tie for your entire team, the little girl sitting in the stands watching her role model, your family, yourself, as well as shooting in front of thousands of fans who are either waiting in silence or screaming their heads off to make you miss.
You carry the weight of your team on your shoulders, so you have to find that zone where it’s just you and the basket…I can correlate that to tennis down match-point…it is tough to be in that situation…but I tell myself I have knocked down free-throws in front of 25,000 raucous fans…surely I can serve this out! It’s all mental!!
USTASW: Basketball is such a pick-up sport, you show up and don't know who is going to be at the YMCA or local park and you just play and get on a team. Tennis obviously is a bit more programmed and planned and we have a ways to go to get like that. How do you think we could get tennis to become more like basketball in that regard?
NM: When I played pick-up, I made sure to play against the guys or players who were going to make me work and get better faster. So in some respects, my pick-up time was coordinated and planned as well. It would have been a waste of time if I showed up somewhere and just dominated.
In tennis, you have so many different talent levels, and you have to make sure you make the time count when you do coordinate your practice or play time. I would hope if pick-up tennis were around, the courts would be coordinated according to playing level. I wouldn’t mind playing pick-up tennis. Tennis is such a small world in the city, I am pretty sure I would know a lot the players who showed up.
USTASW: You've been on about 17 league teams since 2006 and played lots of tournaments since getting into it. Did you switch from basketball to tennis because it gets harder to take that pounding as you age and you wanted something you could maybe play after?
NM: Honestly, in tennis, you can take a lot of pounding as well…especially if you play more singles than doubles. Just like basketball training, you have to take care of your body, train properly and eat well to have enough energy to get through a tough match. I took up tennis because it was a challenge both mentally and physically. In basketball, you can rely on four other teammates on the court to pick up the slack at any moment. In tennis, it’s all you, and you can’t rely on someone else to help win a point.
When I play tennis, I would have to say I am drained after a match. I can only imagine what the pros feel like day in and day out with practice and match play.
USTASW: You know sometimes the more macho sports players from sports like basketball think of tennis as a "sissy" sport. What would you say to those people about the athleticism in tennis?
NM: I tell my friends all the time how difficult of a sport tennis really is. Factor in the speed, agility, explosiveness and strength it takes to get set and hit the ball and play out points. Not to mention learning how to hit pace, and all of the different grips it takes to hit forehand and backhand topspin, slice, volleys and the serve.
Add strategy to the mix and tennis doesn’t seem so sissy after all. I invite friends to the tennis courts all the time to try it out and see how hard it really is. I’ve even had some success converting multi-sport athletes into tennis players.
USTASW: You've already traveled to some pro events and become a huge tennis fan. Any one fan moment stand out yet?
NM: I really enjoyed watching the Champions Series in Surprise, AZ. I wasn’t fortunate enough to see them play in their prime, however, watching Sampras, Chang, Courier, Wilander, Evert and Austin play live was a treat. Although I missed the opportunity to see Nadal live at the US Open this year, I was able to make the trip to NYC to see my all time favorite Roger Federer practice and play live on Center Court. My NY trip was a blast, and I was able to experience it with my best friend Bianca Baca, who also is a multi-sport convert to tennis.
USTASW: You're a teacher now, right? I know the first time we saw you, you were out at a clinic for your kids at the ColemanVision Championships. Do you talk up tennis to your kids in class much?
NM: Being a Physical Education teacher at the elementary school level, I have been able to introduce 10 & Under tennis to my kiddos. It was a struggle at first to find the monies to buy the proper racquets and tennis balls accommodating to their level. Being that I work in an area where kids are playing more of the traditional sports such as basketball, baseball, football and soccer, I was excited to introduce tennis, which is a sport never taught or played in their area.
They love it and enjoy learning something new and progressing. Having the opportunity to take the kids to the ColemanVision (women's $75K challenger) Tournament is a treat and it showcases professional talent and allows for tennis instruction and fun. Making tennis fun for my kids is what it’s all about. It’s a sport of a lifetime and teaches lifetime fitness as well.
USTASW: Who do you have going all the way in your NCAA brackets for the men and women?
NM: This March Madness has steadily destroyed my bracket. There has been so much parity in the men’s game this season, so I am not really surprised with all of the upsets thus far. I had Louisville vs. Indiana in the final with Indiana taking it all.
For the women, my Kentucky Wildcats have already made it to the second round after beating Navy. I would like to see them make it to the Final Four, but they would have to get by UCONN and I foresee a UCONN vs. Notre Dame rematch, with UCONN coming out on top and eventually losing to Baylor if they can’t find a way to stop Brittney Griner. That girl is a beast!
NATALIE MARTINEZ FILE
- Former three-time all-state basketball player at Rio Grande High in Albuquerque
- Played basketball at the University of Kentucky (1996-2000)
- Began playing tennis in late 2005-early 2006 and got to a 4.5 level pretty quickly
- Elementary school teacher who plays league tennis, tournaments and even helps teach her young students
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