Thursday, November 10, 2011

Fusano reflects: From small town to big time in tennis

   Christina Fusano grew up in a child's paradise.
   On her parents' five-acre ranch in El Dorado, about 40 miles east of Sacramento in the Sierra Nevada foothills, there was plenty of room to run around and fresh air to breathe.
   There were horses to ride, trees to climb, rocks to throw, trails to hike and lizards to catch. In the winter, there was nearby sledding. What more could a kid want?
   But for an aspiring professional tennis player, El Dorado was less than ideal. It ranked somewhere above Nome, Alaska, and far below Southern California.
   For starters, there weren't a lot of other promising players to hit with. Then there were the cold winters, occasional snowstorms and lack of indoor courts.
   Fusano overcame the handicaps to play on the pro circuit for eight years before retiring in September at 30. She looks back fondly on her childhood.
   "I loved it," the Sacramento native said. "It was definitely more like country life. (Nearby) Placerville is a great town. There was a lot of driving to Sacramento, though. When I got my (driver's) license, my mom let me go so she didn't have to drive me.
   "I'm trying to think of any tennis player who grew up like me. It's hard to be competitive when you live in the country, but I had great family support. I rode a pony when I was younger, and there were a lot of outdoor activities."
   Only 5-foot-5 and 125 pounds, Fusano went on to win the 2003 NCAA doubles title with Cal teammate Raquel Kops-Jones and specialize in doubles in the pros.
   Fusano won one title on the WTA tour (Quebec City in 2007 with Kops-Jones) and 13 on the ITF (minor league) circuit. She reached the second round at Wimbledon in 2008 (with Angela Haynes), played in the U.S. Open three times and reached a career-high No. 84 in the world in 2008.
   Fusano also played World TeamTennis for five years, including part-time for the Sacramento Capitals for the past two seasons.
   "Unfortunately, I never got to play a full season for them, but you take what you can get," said Fusano, who also played for Boston in 2007, Delaware in 2008 before the team folded and the New York Sportimes in 2009.
   Fusano was ranked in the mid- to low 100s for the last several years, relegating her to the USTA circuit. However, she and former Stanford All-American David Martin won a national playoff to earn a mixed doubles berth in this year's U.S. Open.
   That's where her career ended in a first-round loss to Slovakia's Daniela Hantuchova, one of six women to win a career Grand Slam in mixed doubles, and longtime Capital Mark Knowles, the 2009 Wimbledon mixed doubles champion with Anna-Lena Groenefeld.
   "I spent a lot of time out there (on the pro tour), and I was ready to take the next step in my life," said Fusano, a part-time assistant coach for the UC Davis women who also teaches at the Gold River Racquet Club and Sutter Lawn Tennis Club. "The last few years were up and down, and I was not playing at the highest level (of tournaments). I was burned out, to be honest."
   Fusano considered Argentina's Gisela Dulko, ranked No. 9 in the world in doubles after climbing to No. 1 last November, one of her toughest opponents. At 5-7 and 123, she's built similarly to Fusano.
   "I was really impressed with Dulko," Fusano said. "She's really smart. I prided myself on touch and being smart, but she took it to another level."
   Tammy Hendler, who played for the Capitals in 2008, met Fusano met once, in the first doubles match of 2011 for both players. Fusano and Sacramento-area resident Yasmin Schnack defeated Hendler and Gabriela Paz of Venezuela 6-4, 6-2 in a $25,000 tournament on clay in Plantation, Fla., in January en route to the final.
   "(Fusano) was such a dominant player at the net that it was tough to pass her," Hendler recalled. "She reads the game so well. She plays all the right shots at the right times."   
   Hendler said she asked Fusano to play doubles with her in a $50,000 hardcourt tournament in Lexington, Ky., in July, but Fusano wasn't sure if she was going to go to Lexington. She didn't, and Hendler and fellow 19-year-old Chichi Scholl of Pompano Beach, Fla., proceeded to win the title.
   "Christina is a really good friend," Hendler said. "She's a great person, one of the nicest on the USTA circuit. She's always smiling."
   Fusano's vivacious personality belies the intensity of pro tennis.
   "It's a business, No. 1," she asserted. "In business, they'll do whatever it takes to succeed. I wish I had learned that earlier -- which tournaments to play, how many, who to play with ... It's not easy out there. You have to love the battle, and I did for eight years."
   Fusano revels in "what an incredible, lucky life I've lived. I've traveled to Asia and South America, and, dang, Sacramento, California, is an awesome place." 
   She said her coaching philosophy is the same as it was as a player: "Work hard and have fun."
   Bill Maze, the head women's coach at UC Davis, taught Fusano "on and off for 12 or 13 years," he said, and recruited her out of Ponderosa High School in Shingle Springs. Her playing experience and outgoing personality made her "a complete lock" for the Aggies job, Maze said.
   "To get someone ranked the top 200 (in the world) in doubles who has played in the U.S. Open and won an NCAA doubles title, not many assistants have that on their resume. There are a lot of great players out there, but she has such great charisma and leadership skills. She gets the team so fired up. I couldn't be happier. She's a natural coach," said Maze, a former three-time All-American at Stanford who played No. 1 doubles with John McEnroe.
   "I know she wants to move on. She would be a phenomenal head coach. I feel it's a one-year deal and she'll move on to the business world."
   Fusano admitted the UC Davis position is a "steppingstone" but added that she's "enjoying it more than I thought. The girls are great fun and have a lot of potential. I got a real estate license, so I'll reassess after one year."
   Fusano is the youngest of three children, each five years apart. John, the eldest, is the head basketball coach at Sierra College in Rocklin. Laurena is a realtor. Their father, Chris, worked in property management while their mother, Bettie Ann, raised them.
   Christina took up tennis at 6 when the Millennium SportsClub El Dorado opened in Shingle Springs in 1987. John and Bettie Ann played and introduced Christina to the sport. She competed in volleyball for four years and basketball as a senior at Ponderosa while honing her tennis game at Millennium, in Sacramento and in Davis.
   From the beginning, Fusano's goal was to play professionally.
   "I always worked hard with that in mind," she said. "I realize how much effort my parents put into it. I'm really lucky and thankful."

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