International players set stage for successful future

Nathan Han

The script couldn’t have been written any better.

Senior twin sisters Anna and Bianca Turati from Barzano, Italy, won their first doubles title together Saturday at the H-E-B Women’s Pro Tennis Open hosted at the Texas Tennis Center, beating junior teammate Fernanda Labraña from Santiago, Chile, in the process.

The next day, Anna and Bianca met in the championship round of the singles portion of the tournament. They played a grueling marathon match that lasted over two and a half hours before Bianca eventually took the singles title with a 3-6, 6-3, 6-2 victory.

The title sweep in front of the home crowd was a statement win for Bianca, and a last tuneup for Anna before she competes in the Oracle ITA National Fall Championships on Nov. 6.

The tournament is also a sign of how much the program has grown in recent years with the aid of international talent.

When head coach Howard Joffe took over the program in 2015, he inherited a team that had fallen on hard times. The team struggled to maintain a .500 record across the prior two seasons, missing the postseason after both following years of competing for Big 12 and NCAA titles.

But Joffe has led the team back into contention, winning the past two Big 12 regular season titles, the first time in nearly 20 years Texas has won back-to-back conference championships. The newfound success has led to success on the recruiting trail as well, particularly with international players.

“My intention is to recruit the very best players in the world,” Joffe said. “I’m not thinking about country when I recruit — I’m just trying to recruit the very best.”

In his five years with the program, 31 of the 44 roster spots have been filled by an international player, nearly double the amount of international players that filled the roster in the five years before he took the helm.

Texas has been led in the past few years by the Turati twins. Bianca held the No. 1 ranking in collegiate tennis as a sophomore for three months, a feat no Longhorn had achieved for 23 years.

“We’re the only country that has a very sophisticated and organized collegiate system where you can still try to develop your game and become a pro in the world of tennis,” Joffe said. “So the difficult part of the pitch is when they ask, ‘How can you do both?’ Often it requires an official visit to see the training conditions and the actual stuff here on campus.”

Another talented international player on the team is Labraña, a Santiago, Chile, native and standout player on the team. Joffe saw her playing at the French Open Junior Championships in 2017, and told himself that he had to have her on his team.

Like the Turatis, the highly recruited Labraña was torn between going pro and going to college. Her visit to Texas helped sway her decision.

“All the help we’re given — the facilities, the coaches, all the support. I just saw it all and said, ‘I have to be here,’” Labraña said. “It was such a tough decision between going pro and coming here, but ultimately getting a degree and an education just meant so much to me.”

This season, five out of the seven players on the roster are international players. The two Americans on the roster are both freshmen, as Joffe was able to add Lexi Ryngler from Calibasas, California, and Gabby Cusano from Austin, Texas, to the team.

“One of the things that has changed just a little bit is that we have gotten the commitment of a couple of American kids,” Joffe said. “There’s been a lot more interest here in the (United) States as our program has started to get stronger. (The Turatis) have been great ambassadors.”

While Joffe tries to prepare for the Turati’s departure, he’ll have his strong international track record coupled with strong domestic performances to show new recruits.