Park Place: Irina Falconi returns to her tennis beginnings in New York City

by: Nina Pantic | September 01, 2015

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Falconi's parents, Silvia and Carlos, encouraged her to learn the game on the courts of Inwood Hill Park. (Photos from Irina Falconi)

NEW YORK—At the northern tip of Manhattan, where the A train creeps into its very last stop, is the intersection of Seaman Avenue and 207th Street. For Irina Falconi, the 73rd-ranked tennis player in the world, it’s also an intersection of the past and present.

“This was my entire life,” Falconi says, pausing to gaze at the well-worn public courts of Inwood Hill Park.

On Wednesday, the 25-year-old will play on perhaps the most pristine court in New York City when she faces Venus Williams inside Arthur Ashe Stadium. Twenty years earlier, she was learning the game in Inwood, whose courts Falconi could see from the third floor of the apartment building she lived in.

Born in Portoviejo, Ecuador, the Falconi family moved to New York City when Irina was still a toddler. She remembers dropping water balloons from that third-story window, and learning piano at a neighbor’s house. She also remembers a pit bull chained to a nearby fence snapped down on her hand when she got too close.

Falconi’s family regularly went to church around the corner, and she attended public schools in Inwood and Harlem, to the south. Eager to be outside, Falconi would ride her scooter down the street to the the park. She picked up tennis because it was fun, convenient, and her father Carlos eagerly wanted to teach her.

Two decades later, watching the balls whizz through the air once again, Falconi’s eyes drift toward a group of men practicing on the courts. “I can probably name all those guys because they're still the same,” she says.

It turns out she isn’t exaggerating. As Falconi walks closer, the men stop their hit and rush over. They greet her and take pictures. At one point, a group of six crowds around her. It’s a homecoming, a time to reflect.

“She never beat me,” Pat Benge says. Benge has been a mainstay at Inwood Hill Park since 1978, turning himself into a decent player and eventually a tennis coach.

Carlos would often arrange for his daughter to hit with Inwood regulars like Benge. He always thought there was something special in his daughter than needed nurturing. Once a professional soccer player, Carlos says it was his dream for one of his daughters to play pro sports. (Irina’s older sister, Stephanie, was set back by a torn ACL, but played college tennis for Brown University.) He gave up soccer for a woodworking job that paid the bills.

What Carlos gave Irina in encouragement and support, she gave back in enthusiasm.

“She sat here on this bench, held her racquet like it was a violin, like it was precious,” Benge says. “I’d get here and I’d be 10 minutes late. One day she looks at me and says, ‘I’ve been sitting here waiting, you’re late!’

“I thought, this girl loves tennis. This girl is committed. If she’s 7 years old and saying you’re late, I know there’s something there.”

When Irina was very young, the Falconis considered buying a house in a suburban community just north of Inwood. Carlos, who drove to work in Stamford, Conn., always thought the neighborhood wasn’t safe enough, and parking was terrible—finding a spot would take hours each day. But they didn’t pull the trigger. “Moving to that house wouldn’t have worked out for her tennis,” Benge says.

Everything worked out better than Carlos and his wife Silvia, who worked close to the park as a case manager for a law firm, could have imagined. So much so that when the Falconis moved south to Florida for better weather, higher paying jobs—and more tennis—14-year-old Irina was actually against it. But her tennis blossomed. After some junior-level success, she won a $10,000 tournament in Mexico at age 17 before ultimately taking the college route.

Under the tutelage of Bryan Shelton at Georgia Tech, Falconi’s game really took off. She went 40-3 during her sophomore year, setting school a record for most regular-season matches won, and spent some time atop the college rankings before turning pro in 2010. A year later, she finished her first full season ranked No. 80. That was in part due to her success at Flushing Meadows, where she upset 14th seed Dominika Cibulkova in the second round. After the win, Falconi pulled out an American flag and waved it for the crowd to see in one of the most memorable moments of her career.

It took Falconi a while to build on that breakthrough year, but she’s done so this season, keeping a steady ranking inside the Top 100 and succeeding on the game’s grandest stages. She earned direct entries into main draws of all four majors and duplicated her best result at a Slam by reaching the third round of Roland Garros. She can match that again with a win over Williams.

“I’m excited, pumped and ready to go,” says Falconi, who has never played Venus on tour but has a shutout win over her in World TeamTennis. “I’m just going to play in the moment.”

***

The street running perpendicular to Inwood Hill Park is nicknamed “Play Street” because local children take it over to play games. Basketball courts and a baseball field hug the tennis courts, and a hot dog stand and ice cream cart are parked nearby.

“It’s exactly the same as always,” Falconi says—even down to the smell of marijuana wafting from the park’s back edges.

And no matter how high Falconi flies, Benge and the lifelong players in Inwood will never forget the little girl that they say bashed tennis balls like a machine at this neighborhood staple, and beat up on most of them (who are willing to admit it).

“I praise her everyday for coming out of this park,” Benge says. “The stars needed to align—coincidence and synchronicity—some of them were choices made, some of them were serendipity. But it happened.”

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