By Mark Holston.
Whether it’s at the elementary school, high school, university or professional level, achieving success today as an athlete is more demanding than ever. The fiercely competitive arena of sports requires equal amounts of passion and focus, a mixture of natural abilities and coachable attributes, and an increasing reliance on the latest trends in nutrition and physical conditioning. Then there’s the current focus on the role of psychological preparation and the importance of mental toughness in allowing an athlete to reach their maximum potential. There is also the wild card of genetics – taking the best of what has been passed on from one’s parents and making the most out of it. For Natasha Gonzalez, the 18-year old phenom who has been making waves in the collegiate tennis world, it’s obvious that what she inherited from her mother and father made her success on the court predictable.
“It came naturally,” Natasha recalls of her early indoctrination into tennis. By the age of three, she was exploring around with a tennis ball and racquet. “By the time I was 12, I was skilled enough that my brother and I could play family-style doubles with our parents,” she remembers of her youth in Houston, Texas. In retrospect, it all makes sense: her father Javier, born in Urbana, Illinois of Bolivian descent, and her mother Natalya, met thanks to their involvement in tennis as members of two important Ivy League collegiate teams. Javier, now a successful attorney in Houston, was on the Harvard team, while Natasha’s Boston-born mother was a two-time captain of the Yale University team.
Today, the two Gonzalez siblings are following the path blazed by their parents over three decades ago, building on their legacy of accomplishments. Natasha’s nationally-ranked 21-year old brother Xavier was nationally-ranked in junior tennis. He recorded a 6-1 record and scored a perfect 3-0 tally in doubles action during his sophomore season. He has been honored with both the USTA’s Bill Talbert Junior Sportsmanship Award and the USTA’s National Junior Scholar-Athlete Award as well as being a National High School All-American. Moreover, Xavier was a member of the Harvard Men’s Tennis team that won a share of the 2017 Ivy League Championship (just like the women—it was a great year for Harvard).
Although Natasha has just finished her first year at the school, she managed to score a series of impressive accomplishments. The Harvard women’s team won a share of the 2017 Ivy League championship, thanks in part to the winning point scored by Natasha in a key match with Yale. She was named the team’s “Most Improved in Strength and Conditioning” member by virtue of her “diligence and purposeful training.” Through a competitive process, she was selected to be a Peer Advising Fellow to provide academic guidance to incoming freshmen.
“To be successful in tennis,” Natasha shares with LATINA Style, “mental toughness is one of the most important things. Every play, every shot, is different. You really need to have a fighting spirit, whether you are ahead and trying to put away your opponent, or if you are behind and just trying to come back one point at a time.”
Physical size, something with which she is blessed, is also important. “I’m the second tallest player on my team,” she states, crediting her mother’s side of the family for her lanky 5’10” frame.
Balancing athletic competition with the demands of the classroom is a challenge, but one Natasha says pays dividends on both sides of the equation. “Being on a team adds a lot to the day,” she admits. “But when you manage it well, it can be very rewarding. Like the coach says, you don’t have to practice, you get to practice. It’s an attitude. And having physical activity built in to every day’s routine helps you stay focused when you are studying.”
Her routine includes matches against teammates and strength and conditioning work to improve agility and physical strength.
For relaxation, Natasha finds that meal time at Harvard fills an important role in her campus experience. “All of the freshmen eat at the same time and in one hall,” she explains, “so you get to know a lot of your fellow students. These friendships help a lot.”
“To be successful in tennis, mental toughness is one of the most important things. Every play, every shot, is different. You really need to have a fighting spirit, whether you are ahead and trying to put away your opponent, or if you are behind and just trying to come back one point at a time.”
To date, Natasha has not declared her major field of study, but has her eye on several options. “I’m thinking about philosophy or psychology,” she comments. “Ultimately, I want to go into business because I would like to work on a corporate-type team to solve problems with a broad impact.”
One thing that she does not have much of an interest in is joining her sport’s professional ranks. “College is becoming less and less important for entry into the professional ranks,” she adds. “Today, I’m more focused on collegiate competition.” But Natasha is broadening her tennis horizons. This summer she’ll travel outside of the U.S. for the first time as a team member of the U.S. squad in the Avery Cup competition with Great Britain.
“I’m so lucky and fortunate,” Natasha states, reflecting on her upbringing and the opportunities her parents provided. Both she and Xavier went to prep school at St. John’s, a prestigious Houston area private institution where they distinguished themselves academically as well as on the tennis court. She was a tennis letter winner in sophomore, junior and senior seasons at St. John’s and served as team captain during her junior and senior years. She was named team MVP in sophomore, junior and senior seasons. She also excelled in extracurricular activities, being a three-time winner of the President’s Service Award and serving as president of the Hispanic Affinity Group.
“Education is vitally important,” Natasha states, offering words of advice to other young Latinas who might be struggling with difficult life choices. “It’s literally the key to a better future. Even if someone is in a challenging personal situation, they need to focus on getting educated.”
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