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Tennis anyone? Nadal looks to Mexico to unearth talent

Rafael Nadal was a runner-up at the Mexican Open in Acapulco earlier this year. Henry Romero/Reuters

MEXICO CITY – It’s been almost a quarter century since Mexico has produced a top-100 ranked male tennis player.

In order to bolster its profile within the sport, top sports officials working in the country have turned to Spanish star Rafael Nadal to launch a hunt for the newest star.

The Rafa Nadal Tour, a tennis camp geared towards unearthing talented youths between the ages of 11 and 13, will make stops in five Mexican cities beginning May 29. It is the first nation outside of Spain that will host the event, although later this year it will also make a stop in China.

After the initial camp is over, select players will attend Nadal’s academy on the Spanish island of Mallorca.

“In essence, the prize is a good one,” said Ramiro Mayoral, a former Mexico tennis pro who now coaches in Mexico City. Mayoral himself has undertaken teaching courses in Spain, Argentina and the United States.

“To have the opportunity to attend a prestigious academy in Mallorca and attached to someone like Nadal is a good one,” he continued.

The Spanish star’s relationship with Mexico stretches back to 2005, when Nadal won his first Mexican Open, beating countryman Albert Montanes en route to the title.

Nadal’s most recent visit to Mexico was last February to take part in the 2017 Abierto Mexicano in Acapulco, losing the final to American Sam Querrey.

During his visit, Mexico’s Sports Secretary Alfredo Castillo, who announced the partnership with Nadal, revealed that the tennis star met with the country’s president, Enrique Pena Nieto, to formalize the deal.

Despite the marquee name attached to the project, doubts remain as to the viability of future stars coming from the joint venture.

“I think there are pros and cons to it, like with everything,” said Miguel Angel Reyes-Varela, a Mexican pro tennis player. “There will be opportunities for kids, but on the other hand, Mexico has sent amateurs and pros abroad in the past, and I can’t remember anything bearing fruits.”

The idea that a branded sports academy would essentially account for a large chunk of scouting within the country could breed cynicism, according to Mayoral.

“The CONADE [regulatory body] needs to prove this isn’t just a marketing deal to promote [Nadal’s] academy,” Mayoral said. “With academies like this, students have to pay for certain things. I don’t know of any school that gives it all away for free.”

Reyes-Varela, who represented Mexico in the Rio Olympics in the men’s doubles category, believes Mexican tennis would be better suited with a long-term plan, not a varied approach that yields many potential quick fixes.

“Our problems go beyond [setting up a camp],” said Reyes-Varela. “We’re not attacking the problem at its root, and we’re not taking advantage of certain things to project our athletes.”

Those at the center of the plan, however, think there’s an equal amount of steak and sizzle to the scheme.

Castillo, head of CONADE, revealed that the long-term objective of the Rafa Nadal Tour is to set up a permanent residency program in Spain for promising Mexican tennis players to learn directly under Nadal.

The country’s top players and coaches agree with Castillo in one key area: Top players must be sent abroad to continue their development.

“I’ve seen the courts there, the buildings; they’re impressive,” Mayoral said. “The kids who get to experience that will no doubt be amazed.”

“We need to emulate and export,” Reyes-Varela stated. “Look at Spain, France, the [U.S.]. We’re talking about the most successful countries on the planet when it comes to tennis.”

Currently, the country’s top singles player is Manuel Sanchez, ranked 669th in the world in the ATP’s latest rankings. On the doubles side, Santiago Gonzalez, Reyes-Varela’s Olympic partner last year in Brazil, is ranked 70th in the world.

The women have not fared much better. Mexico’s top-ranked WTA player is 22-year-old Victoria Rodriguez, who is 272th in the world.

“We need players who are disciplined; coaches too,” Reyes-Varela said. “To achieve that, we need to follow through on a plan. It seems like every time there’s a change at the top [of CONADE], projects go by the wayside.”

Mexico’s last top-100 ranked tennis player was Luis Enrique Herrera, who cracked that threshold in 1993. The country’s best player of all time, Rafael Osuna, won the 1963 US Open and reached the world’s top ranking that same year. As a doubles player, Osuna won three major tournaments, including two Wimbledon titles and another US Open.