Cristina Sanchez-Quintanar's true love
There may come a day in the not too distant future when Cristina Sanchez-Quintanar walks onto a tennis court in Melbourne, Paris, London or New York City and savors the satisfaction that comes from a lifetime of work rewarded. Tennis brought her from Spain to college in the United States. It could take her around the world as a professional, perhaps even to the aforementioned homes of the sport's four biggest tournaments.
Yet on a recent Friday night deep in the heart of Texas, far from the tennis world that readied itself elsewhere for the start of the US Open, Sanchez-Quintanar waited for a referee's signal and then jogged onto a soccer field in front of 5,000-plus fans as Texas A&M hosted Duke in a game between two of the top programs in college soccer.
A tennis All-American at Texas A&M who finished her final season of eligibility in that sport ranked fifth in the nation in singles, she is spending her final year on campus as a soccer role player.
There will be time for tennis. There has always been time for tennis. There has never been enough time for this.
"I step on the field and I just feel happy to be there and to run and have fun," Sanchez-Quintanar said. "It's something I always wanted to do, and now they're giving me the chance to do it. I'm just trying to enjoy it."
Growing up in Campo de Criptana, a small town near Madrid, she loved soccer at least as much as tennis, probably more. She rooted for Real Madrid and idolized superstar Raul, who scored more than 200 goals for the club during a career there that spanned essentially the entirety of Sanchez-Quintanar's childhood. And like kids the world over, whether they do so on playground basketball courts or makeshift soccer fields, she went out and mimicked her favorite player for hours on end in pickup games or by herself with a ball at her foot.
But women's soccer in Spain lags far behind the men's game. The men's national team rules the sport, minus this summer's setback in the Confederations Cup. Even after a good showing in this summer's European Championship, the women's national team lags far behind continental counterparts like France, Germany and Sweden. There is little support at the institutional level from the national federation, and cultural acceptance remains a work in progress when it comes to the national pastime.
Sanchez-Quintanar heard the snide remarks that football wasn't a place for girls. She also did the math. Making a go of a professional career in any sport means beating long odds, but she saw more Spanish women succeed in tennis than in soccer. Not to mention that she was really good at tennis. She enjoyed it. Soccer remained close to her heart, but tennis gradually took control of her schedule.
It eventually took her all the way to the University of Maryland, which was where she found an old friend waiting for her.
With his new recruit ineligible to play the spring tennis season after arriving in the middle of the 2009-10 academic year, Maryland tennis coach Howard Joffe asked soccer coach Brian Pensky if there might be an opportunity for Sanchez-Quintanar to burn off some competitive energy by training with the soccer team. After some email exchanges with the player, Pensky agreed to the arrangement.
"It was obvious the kid loved the game, and she had a feel for the game," Pensky said. "But also she had a competitiveness and a confidence that you want to see in all your kids, all your athletes."
She wasn't ready to call it quits after spring soccer was done. When the real soccer season arrived the following fall, she was still part of the team. Only after that season did her tennis coaches tell her they needed her full attention. When Joffe left soon thereafter to become the coach at Texas A&M, Sanchez-Quintanar went with him. But the agreement held; she left soccer behind. Again.
The tennis experience in her new home was an unqualified success. She set the school record at Texas A&M for highest national ranking in singles when she climbed to No. 6 in her first season, and then bettered it by one spot this past spring. With their best player leading the way, the Aggies climbed to No. 3 in the country this past season, also a program high, and came within a match of winning the national championship.
The tough part came on the few occasions when she stopped by the soccer facility to watch the team train.
"I couldn't stand it really long because it was really tough on me," Sanchez-Quintanar said. "It was hard to see how the others were playing soccer. And I was not anymore on the field with the soccer players."
At least until now. Knowing Sanchez-Quintanar would return to Texas A&M this fall to complete her degree in international commerce, Joffe reached out to a soccer coach for the second time, in this case longtime Texas A&M coach G Guerrieri, to see if there might be an opportunity for her to stretch her soccer legs. Once again, the player's passion won a convert.
"We had a kid who could come in, but it was a special kid who was a winner, who helped take our women's tennis team to win the SEC regular season and all the way to the NCAA national runners-up," Guerrieri said. "Any time you can add a winner like that to your team, an absolute winner of a person, I think you'd be foolish not to take them up on it."
It is not pure charity that affords Sanchez-Quintanar these soccer opportunities. It certainly wasn't charity that convinced Guerrieri to play her 17 minutes in as meaningful a game as the season opener between ranked teams. She's pretty good. Both Pensky and Guerrieri noted that the pace of the college game can get the better of her at times, but her touch and soccer instincts belong to someone who grew up watching the sport and playing for the sake of playing, not altogether common traits for American players raised in a club culture focused on results.
She still practices tennis three times a week. It is unlikely that fame and riches await in the professional ranks. While it once featured names like Arthur Ashe and John McEnroe, college tennis is not a common stop for those with Grand Slam aspirations. As a New York Times story in January noted, the WTA top 100 was at the time bereft of any former college players. But if Sanchez-Quintanar can find sponsorship, she wants to give the pro circuit a try. Watching the early rounds of the US Open, she saw names of people she had played, and in many cases beaten, on college courts. Tennis is a passion.
It just isn't her first love.
"Even when she transferred to A&M, she didn't want to leave," Pensky said. "She knew it was the best decision for her from a tennis standpoint, and she knew it was the best move to stay with Howard. But she -- and I mean this with all the love in the world -- she's so crazy that she wanted to stay at Maryland because she wanted to play soccer in the fall. ... That's just how much soccer meant to her."
That much was clear in the hours after Maryland exited the 2010 ACC tournament on penalty kicks. Sanchez-Quintanar played sparingly down the stretch that season and didn't play at all in that tournament game. But after the Terrapins were eliminated, she stood and spoke to her teammates on the bus. She told them about her parents staying up until the wee hours of the morning in Spain to watch the game online. She said it was one of the proudest moments of her life, to know her mom and dad watched her team. Her soccer team.
The next time she trades her cleats for a racket or anything else will be the last time. So she's going to enjoy this while it lasts.
"For me, it's like a dream that I had since I was little, playing soccer," Sanchez-Quintanar said. "I have so much fun there. I love the feeling of playing with a team. I have a tennis team, but it's not the same as a soccer team."