- Video produced by Wonok Kim -
By Christopher Lancette
WASHINGTON — Third-year pro Irina Falconi and I sit down at a bar. It’s open mic night for comedians and Falconi is ready to take the stage.
Actually, that’s a lie.
We’ve never been to a bar together. The sum total of our relationship is the time I spent watching her compete in the last two Citi Open tournaments and the interview we did earlier this month. The reason I wanted to chat with the Ecuador-born New Yorker currently ranked No. 111 in singles is because I had to see if she was as hilarious and honest in person as she is in the blog posts she writes for the WTA and World Team Tennis.
Turns out that the 22-year-old really is that funny. She made me laugh so hard on and off camera that I’d be afraid to have dinner with her for fear I’d spit my beverage all over her.
Ask Falconi about her next goal in life and she doesn’t even mention tennis.
“My goal is to reach Lady Gaga status of 25 million Twitter followers,” she deadpans during our “The Changeover” video interview. She’s at about 2,100 now. Follow her immediately @irinafalconi. If you help her reach 2,500, she’ll be off and running. No doubt she’ll appreciate it. Maybe she’ll even come up with a name for her fans. I’m sure it would be better than “Little Monsters.”
How did she make the agonizing decision to play college tennis instead of turning pro? She didn’t agonize.
“I had a tournament that went 0-6, 6-0, 0-6,” she remembers. “I lost. I said, ‘Mom, I’m going to college.’”
Oblivious to how college recruiting works, Falconi reached out to Georgia Tech women’s coach Bryan Shelton. She had met him briefly but hadn’t communicated with him in nine months. There’s nothing college coaches love more than thinking they’ve been given up for dead.
“I asked if he had a spot,” she says. “He said, ‘Yeah, but we’ve got to hurry.’ A month later I was in school. It was ridiculous. He had only seen me play once so I just kind of showed up. I hadn’t seen the campus and didn’t know what I wanted to study.”
She quickly ruled out Georgia Tech’s traditional engineering route. She chose history.
“There was no English major at Georgia Tech so that’s the reason why I did it,” she says. “I wasn’t into the whole math and science thing. I was pretty sure I’d live without having AP physics in my degree — pretty sure I’d be OK.”
Besides, Falconi can do things the nerds can’t — like crush a ball with various spins and speeds. And when is the last time a math club member beat a No. 14 seed in the second round of the U.S. Open? Falconi did that in 2011, taking out Dominika Cibulkova in a dramatic, come-from-behind victory. She has reached a career-high of No. 73 and looks to best that ASAP. She also won four ITF titles from 2007 to 2010 and broke all kinds of school records in the two years she spent with the Yellow Jackets.
Has there been a part of WTA life that was harder than she expected?
“Losing sucks,” she says. “Last year, I was in Asia and I lost four first rounds in a row, and I was alone. For four weeks, I was alone. I came back to visit a friend in L.A. for 12 hours. The next week, I won the gold at the Pan Am Games. You just never know, but losing definitely is not fun.”
Blogging is, and she excels at that, too.
Falconi blogs from all over the place – planes, trains, automobiles, tournaments, World Team Tennis matches, and hotels. She shares her new life as a pro the way the rest of us would if we suddenly made the tour and began having all kinds of amazing experiences: She writes with excitement and joy. She also plays loose with grammar, not because she’s incapable of producing perfect prose but because she’s in touch with her inner Snoop Dogg.
Take the time she first met John Isner.
“So, I went up to him,” she wrote, “stopped him in his tracks, and asked him ‘Hey man, look I gotta ask you, how tall are you?’ And he answers “Eh, about 6’9, 6’10.’ So me, being the unfiltered little teenager that I was, looks at him in astonishment and says ‘Dang, you’re a TREE!’ And I walked off.”
She pulls no punches on babies screaming on airplanes, self-absorbed folks that won’t put their cell phones on mute even when stuck in claustrophobic quarters, or a Boston Lobsters’ teammate drawing on her arm while she was busy signing autographs after a World Team Tennis match. “REEEEEEEL mature,” she wrote, sending Vanna White into a frenzy.
Falconi also likes to invent words.
My favorite Falcon-ism is “anywhoozer.” That’s the transition she uses to start a new paragraph that loops back to her previous point – but only after she has gone for a long stroll down tangent lane. (Maybe that’s a name for her fans: the “Anywhoozers.” I want royalties if she puts it on t-shirts!)
Blogging helps Falconi relax. It also happens to be an excellent way to interact with fans. She even answers questions in the blog from the Anywhoozers. (That does have a ring to it, doesn’t it? I know Falconi will let me know if it doesn’t. She didn’t hesitate to crack on my penmanship when she saw me scribbling away during the interview. “Are you a doctor as well? You’ve got the handwriting down. That’s all you need.”)
Falconi hits the target when she adds that so many fans “are bored with the mundane. Oh, I hit cross-courts today and I hit down-the-lines today. I figured I’d spice it up a little bit. It’s fun to throw in a little joke here and there. People want to know what tennis players are about, not just on the court.”
She put a particularly interesting twist on a night of getting gussied after a match with her WTT Boston Lobster teammates.
“After that, we got to dress up and join our friends for a wonderful dinner at this fantastic venue,” she wrote.” Ya know, tennis players probably feel like Superman sometimes. Cuz Lois Lane would always just see him in his regular clothing — which to us is tennis clothing. And when he put his cape on, he would become Superman — yet we become normal when we put on regular nice girly clothing … bah, you know what I mean.”
I do, actually. I’ll spend a week covering a women’s tournament and interviewing a player multiple times – then struggle to recognize her when she walks right past me in street clothes two hours later.
When Falconi is in her normal-person disguise, she likes to read voraciously. She’s also into music. She tells me that her favorite artist right now is Usher. I decide to see if I can turn the table on Falconi and make her chuckle by telling her about my near encounter with the guy many years ago. I don’t know anything about music and had no idea why burger flippers at an Atlanta Wendy’s were going nuts about a man picking up a bite at a drive-through one night. They tell me that was “Usher”. I asked them what was so exciting about meeting a guy who shows you to your seat in a theater.
Falconi gives me a blank stare: I bombed.
“Sometimes I’m too proud to laugh,” she says, sympathetically. “That was really funny. Deep down inside, I’m laughing.”
Suuuure she is.
Our conversation turns serious for a moment, the video camera having stopped rolling long ago. I mention that I recognize that life on the pro tour is not necessarily as easy and glorious as fans might think. I see the brutally long days of intense physical work, career-determining stress that comes with each match and brutal travel schedules. I ask her if she’s having a good time – if she really enjoys her career on the courts.
“At the end of the day, I have one of the best lives you could possibly ask for,” she tells me. “I travel the world and get to play competitively and make money. How many people would love to do that?”
I thank her for her time and wish her well in the tournaments to come. Falconi heads to the nearest phone booth for a quick change and a flight to Montreal.
Follow Christopher Lancette on Twitter @chrislancette.