| By Brian Coleman
Photo courtesy of USTA/Pete Staples

 

This article first appeared in the March/April 2020 issue of Long Island Tennis Magazine. You can read the full digital edition by clicking here


When she was around six-years-old, Julia Elbaba began playing tennis for the first time. As the young child of parents who enjoyed playing tennis, Elbaba started taking part in an after school program at Port Washington Tennis Academy primarily so she would have something active to do after school.

That would turn out to be a smart decision. After showing talent and promise, a coach from that program suggested that Elbaba start taking tennis lessons. Soon after, the Oyster Bay native was taking lessons at various clubs and facilities throughout Long Island and began competing in USTA tournaments. 

“I played a couple of days a week. I pretty much took a lesson at every tennis club that exists on Long Island,” said Elbaba. “I continued to take lessons, and around the age of 11 I played in my first tournament. I was laser-focused on the tennis life; I was really enjoying it.”

That focus would lead to Elbaba shooting up the junior rankings, and left her with a decision to make when she reached high school. In order to fully commit to that tennis life, Elbaba chose to do her education through Laurel Springs, an online private school based in Ojai, Calif., to ensure she would be able to train, travel and play in some of the world’s biggest junior tournaments. 

As she continued to train and improve, Elbaba was able to play in the Grand Slam Junior events, including multiple US Opens, and even recorded a victory over Donna Vekic, currently ranked 23rd on the WTA Tour. 

“Despite going on to lose in that tournament, it was still one of th ebest experiences of my life,” she recalls. “I had just committed to the University of Virginia, and was playing on a big court in the second round of a Grand Slam event. I then had to make a decision on whether I would go to college, or commit to play professionally. I really went back and forth trying to make that decision and it was really difficult.”

Ultimately, Elbaba decided to attend college and took her talents to Charlottesville, Virginia to play for the University of Virginia, a decision she most certainly does not regret. 

“When I took my visit to Virginia, I really liked the coaches and players, and the campus was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. Charlottesville is amazing, I still visit there all the time,” said Elbaba. “I fell in love with that school, and I knew that it would be the place where I could take my tennis to the next level so I could play professionally after my four years. The academics are strong as well, that balance reassured me that it was the place for me.”

Elbaba flourished in Charlottesville, and would go on to have one of the most decorated careers in the history of college tennis. She went 35-12 in her freshman season and won ITA National Rookie of the Year, which she followed up in her sophomore campaign by going 31-6 in singles play and finishing the year ranked sixth in the country.

In her junior year, Elbaba spent time as the top-ranked player in the country, and was selected to represent the United States at the Master’U BNP Paribas in Aix-en-Provence, France where she went undefeated in singles and doubles play to help lead Team USA to the Gold Medal. She capped off her time at Virginia by earning All-American status for a fourth straight season and winning the Cissie Leary Award for Sportsmanship and Courage, which is awarded to a Division 1 women’s play who “displays inspiring dedication and commitment to her team, which has enhanced her team’s performance and exemplified the spirit of college tennis.”

“That meant a lot to me. It was a reflection of some the struggles I went through in tennis, and the ones we went through as a team, and how I was able to help my teammates throughout my four years,” said Elbaba. “I was really honored to receive that award. I wish we could have won a team event during my time there, but I’m proud of all the accolades I was able to earn in my time in college. Coming up in the juniors, I didn’t really have any expectations, but I knew I was capable of big things if surrounded by the right coaches and players, and that’s what I found at the University of Virginia. They allowed me to be the best version of myself on the tennis court.”

After graduating, Elbaba officially began her time as a professional, and quickly earned a wild card into a 25K event in Landisville, Penn.. She made good on the wild card by reaching the finals, knocking off four players who are currently ranked inside the top 100 in the process. 

Unfortunately for Elbaba, the one opponent that she has not been able to overcome during these last couple of years  has been the injury bug. A few months after reaching the finals of that tournament, she was sidelined with a broken hand, and most recently, she tore the UCL in her left elbow:

“It feels like since the end of 2016 I’ve been dealing with one injury after the next, which has been really hard for me.”

Julia Elbaba was a guest speaker and panelist at the 2020 New York Tennis Expo. (Photo Credit: Owen Kassimir)

 

But Elbaba has made the most of her time off the court and ventured into the media world, something she studied at Virginia and a path she was always interested in pursuing. She created her own blog and podcast, Jules On The Hustle, where she gives her insight into the life of a touring pro, and working as a sports reporter for Newsday, Long Island’s prominent newspaper. 

“I’ve always wanted to get into working in media, and knew it would be in my future. I just wasn’t sure when,” said Elbaba. “I’ve loved reporting on sports for Newsday. I’m doing some writing, on-air work, social media and more. With my experience and insight as a former player I think I can bring a different angle to the reporting, and not just for tennis, but for all sports.”

While Elbaba has begun venturing towards another career path, the 25-year-old has certainly not given up on her time as a professional tennis player. As she continues to get closer to full strength physically, she has been working hard both at her job, and in the gym..

“I can say that I’m pretty healthy, knock on wood. My tennis level isn’t where it was a couple of years ago, but that’s because of my lack of time on the court,” she said. “Physically, though, I think I am in one of the best shapes of life right now. I’m going to the gym every day, I just need more reps on the tennis court. But I’m really enjoying doing the type of work I’m interested in doing right now, and finding myself through this process.”

 

Brian Coleman

Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for Long Island Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at brianc@usptennis.com