BY RICH NEHER
When I connected with Paula Umaña on LinkedIn I had no idea about her history until I read “Former WTA tour player who became a quadriplegic due to a nervous system disorder.”And then I realized that she is still teaching in Atlanta and I knew I had to interview her. Writing is a little difficult for Paula so she sent over an audio file and that worked well, too. I decided to let her tell her story and only ask a few questions. Hope you like it.
After listening to her story I decided I will never ever again complain about my knee or shoulder again. I am saluting Paula Umaña for overcoming a rare illness in a way that inspired me and hopefully inspires some of you, as well. Paula is ready, willing, and able to come to your club or organization to speak to your members or employees. I have put her contact information at the end of this article.
TCB: Hello Paula, thank you for speaking with us. Tell us where you’re from and how you got started in tennis.
PU: I was born in San Jose, in the beautiful country of Costa Rica. I was the youngest of seven children. One day, when I was six years old, my dad came home and said he got a membership at the Costa Rica Tennis Club. I remember I had a wooden racquet and was hitting a ball against a wall. That’s where everything started for me. I immediately loved it and at 12 years old I was already the number 1 junior player in Costa Rica. My dad was a dentist but he was only able to afford one trip abroad for me.
TCB: How did your tennis develop up until you started playing on the tour?
PU: In 1990 my sister married a tennis coach, José Naranjo, who was a leukemia survivor. He was also the first tennis pro certified by PTR in Costa Rica. He opened the first tennis academy in Costa Rica, he called it Orange Tennis Academy. He asked me if I wanted to become a professional tennis player. I didn’t know what that entailed but it was my dream come true. I was 14 or 15 and became homeschooled so I could play tennis eight hours a day at my brother-in-law’s tennis academy.
My first sponsor was a big hotel company. I will never forget the day they brought me a bag with racquets, shoes, uniforms, everything, and they offered to pay for all my trips. That was my opportunity and subsequently, I became Central American Champion, a rank I held for nine years. I was practically the best tennis player in the history of Central America. (Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama.)
When I was 18 years old I moved to Florida and started to practice at Patricio Apey’s Tennis Academy in Key Biscayne. That was the Academy where Gabriela Sabatini played. Patricio helped me and guided me on playing on the tour, getting points, and becoming a professional tennis player. My best rank was 281 (dbls) and 624 (sgls).
I represented Costa Rica in Fed Cup for nine years in a row. Then I went to university (Universidad Internacional de las Américas in San José) and studied international trade. In 1998/99 the ITF hired me to represent a program in Costa Rica titled “School Tennis Initiative.” I taught PE teachers how to teach tennis and put 10,000 kids into the sport. The ITF would ship all the equipment.
After that, I founded “Tennis for Fun” with the same kind of programs but more private. I also represented my country in the Central American Games where I met my husband who is a Chiropractor. We moved to Atlanta, Georgia and I realized how big tennis was here. I started teaching a lot of ALTA teams but my passion was more to work with children.
In 2003/04 I started “Coach Paula, LLC” providing After School Programs and Summer Camps in Atlanta schools. This became a big success and we were very busy. I learned how to be flexible as a tennis coach and how to create courts on any flat surface.
By Rich Neher, Contributing Editor, ONcourt
Publisher of Tennis Club Business with the Tennis Media Group