After earthquake levels hometown, Ecuador-born Falconi wins first title

by: Nina Pantic | April 19, 2016

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“I play for the United States, but I was born in Ecuador, so I played for them on Sunday,” says Falconi. (AP)

On Sunday, Irina Falconi reached a career milestone by capturing her first WTA title in Bogota, Colombia. The No. 5 seed beat Silvia Soler-Espinosa, 6-2, 2-6, 6-4, in nearly two hours.

Taking the match on her third match point, the 25-year-old burst into tears.

“It has definitely been an emotional couple of days,” says Falconi. “After what had happened on Saturday in Ecuador, there was definitely a lot of feelings, and a lot of emotions, going through my body.”

The day before, 900 miles south of Bogota in Portoviejo, Ecuador, a magnitude-7.8 earthquake shook Falconi’s hometown, reducing most of it to rubble. The earthquake’s epicenter was roughly 250 miles from Ecuador’s capital city of Quito. The death toll is reported to be over 400, with more than 2,000 injured.

“I play for the United States, but I was born in Ecuador, so I played for them on Sunday,” says Falconi.

The disaster leveled the house Falconi was born in, but luckily none of her relatives in the area were hurt. Her father, Carlos, was visiting Portoviejo at the time.  

“Obviously, I got extremely worried,” says Falconi. “My dad was supposed to come and watch me play the final. There was a flight at 6 p.m. from Guayaquil that would have landed in Bogota on Saturday night. But he was unfortunately in Portoviejo, which was where there was the most damage.”

Carlos Falconi has remained in Ecuador to help out in his home country, which is still dealing with aftershocks, a rising death toll and billions of dollars in damage.

“It’s definitely been a bittersweet kind of thing because after I won everybody was asking, ‘How do you feel about Ecuador,’” says Falconi. “How am I supposed to feel? It’s awful. It’s tough to really say, ‘Oh my gosh, I won a WTA title,’ when there’s people dying. So it really puts it in perspective.”

Last November, Falconi returned to Portoviejo for the first time in 10 years, where she was welcomed like a homegrown hero despite her American citizenship. (The former New Yorker and now long-time south Florida resident left Ecuador at the age of four). The city of Portoviejo honored her as the highest ranked Ecuadorian-born WTA player in history.

Before her breakthrough week, Falconi had never played in a WTA singles final (she has appeared in three WTA doubles finals and has won five ITF titles). She became the first American to win the $250,000 red-clay tournament, and her ranking has risen back up to No. 67, three spots shy of matching her career high.

Falconi was six points away from losing the title match after going down 3-4, 0-30 in the final set, but reeled off three straight games to overcome Soler-Espinosa.

“I really held myself together and I was able to talk positively to myself, and give myself so much support and fire power,” says Falconi. “I was literally screaming to myself—all good stuff though.”

She celebrated with a bottle of champagne and a large order of granadillas (a tropical fruit most native to South America). Her boyfriend bet her that if she won the tournament he would finally try the unusually textured local delicacy. He was good on his word.

Falconi, who took home $43,000 with the victory, is planning to donate to the victims and families affected by the catastrophe, but she’s already helped by giving her birth country something very special to be proud of.

“It’s been tough,” says Falconi. “But I know what I accomplished was really great, and in a sense, even if it was just some good news to the Ecuadorian people that an Ecuadorian-born player won a WTA title, even if that’s just a bit of good news, it’s something.”

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