On the tour with Irina Falconi: Reflecting on 2016, preparing for Oz

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Irina Falconi won her first WTA title in 2016, and she'll look to add to that total this year. (AP)

After two years of domination at Georgia Tech, Irina Falconi turned pro in 2010. She cracked the Top 100 for the first time in 2011, thanks in part to a third-round run at the U.S. Open. In 2015, the Florida resident returned to the Top 100 once more, and last season she won her first career WTA title in Bogota and reached a career-high ranking of No. 63.

Injuries littered the second half of her season, and Falconi slipped to No. 99 by year’s end. But there’s a long, new season ahead of her. The 26-year-old has started her 2017 campaign Down Under, where she’s getting ready for her sixth Australian Open.

How do you feel about your 2016 season?

Other than some bad luck with several injuries, hey, I didn’t have that bad of a year. I won my first WTA title and finished Top 100 in the world even though I didn’t play a tournament for four months.

There were actually two lowlights. I got a nasty ankle sprain from a fall in Nurnberg the week before the French Open. And then the day after U.S. Open, I had to get surgery on my big toe because I had an extra bone in my foot, so that wasn’t fun. I played just six tournaments after Nurnberg. It was the first time I had missed so much time, and it was also the first time getting surgery.

How did settling into Lake Nona’s USTA National Campus go? 

Settling into Lake Nona was a breeze. I actually just Googled apartments in Lake Nona, clicked on the first one, went to visit it, and a week later I moved in. My boyfriend moved in with me, and we got a great place with the best location—just six minutes away from the USTA National Campus, and 13 minutes away from the airport, give or take a few minutes. Sam’s Club and Walmart were opening up in a few weeks, so it was a no-brainer.

I loved the fact that I could come back to my apartment in between sessions during my offseason. I’ve always traveled a lot to play tennis, but it was a nice change to travel less than 10 minutes to get to work.

What's the most important aspect of your game you focused on in December? 

During my offseason, my main focus was just to get my rhythm back. My priority has been to have patience throughout the foot injury, because I’m typically a super impatient person. I was happy to just be out there, playing with other girls, and running around the court and working out without any hesitation.

How do you feel about 2017?

I am super stoked about the season ahead. I know that I almost threw up before my first match, but it felt great to compete again once I was done with the warm-up. I shouldn’t have many expectations, but at the same time, I want to continue to stay inside the Top 100 and win another WTA event.

Does your ranking frustrate or inspire you—or perhaps both—for the new year?

At the moment, I’m slightly unfazed by my ranking. It changes constantly, and I know that I have some points to defend coming up. But at the same time, I know I didn’t lose too much of it while I was injured. Right now, the focus is just getting matches and feeling comfortable on the court again.

At 26, how does your experience help you when you're gearing up for another long season?

It definitely takes a little longer to recover than when I was 18, but that’s why rest and recovery is more important than anything at my age. I have some pretty great years ahead of me, so I’m excited to see what my experience and veteran savviness will do for my game.

What do you love and hate about journeying Down Under?

I love the people, and the feeling I get when I am in Australia. I don’t enjoy the long travel journey to get there, but it’s definitely worth it once you arrive.

So many are hoping for success from the American women in the Top 100. How do you cope with the pressure of being a veteran American?

At the end of the day, I am rooting for all the Americans. There have been times where I find myself coaching and giving words of advice to fellow players. To be honest, I should be thanking them for continuing to push me and entice me to continue my career.

What helps you feel most at home when you're on the road? And what part of the job would some people be most surprised to learn?

My boyfriend makes me feel at home. It’s not easy to travel alone, and to know that I have someone waiting for me at the hotel room every night is an extreme luxury.

I think the biggest surprise for most people about being a professional is honestly the amount of travel. People probably think it’s a few times out of the year for the big tournaments, but we are easily on the road anywhere from 30-40 weeks out of the year.  

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