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Brandi, Castellvi Add Spark To Women’s Tennis

By Gabrielle Paese

July 18, 2003
Copyright © 2003 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Not since Gigi Fernandez won 17 Grand Slam doubles titles has all of Puerto Rico been so taken with women's tennis.

With good reason. Or maybe that should be reasons. Two Puerto Rican women, Kristina Brandi and Vilmarie Castellvi, are tearing up the USTA pro circuit this summer.

Sidelined by a wrist injury in 2001, Kristina Brandi is working her way back to the WTA circuit slowly but surely. She won her last three USTA circuit tournaments, the most recent coming just last week in College Park, Md. She so dominated that tournament that she won the last four rounds in straight sets.

A native Puerto Rican who moved to Florida when she was young, Brandi represented the island for the first time last year, playing Fed Cup as well as competing in the Central American-Caribbean Games. She was instrumental in Puerto Rico's Fed Cup move up to Group I and was the CAC Games gold medalist in singles and doubles. She is the daughter of Joe Brandi, a former tennis player who also formerly coached Pete Sampras. At 26, she has 10 years of WTA play to her credit. She won seven games against Venus Williams at the 2002 Australian Open, in a 6-3, 6-4 second-round loss. Brandi is known on court for her fitness and strong work ethic.

Her CAC Games doubles partner, Vilmarie Castellvi, is the second reason this tiny island is tennis-mad once again. Runner-up at the NCAA tennis finals earlier this year, Castellvi was the NCAA's top-ranked player for most of the season representing the University of Tennessee, from which she graduated this spring. She made the move to pro tennis just four tournaments ago, and has already made it to the semifinals in two of them.

The young woman with the big backhand has caught the attention of none other than Fernandez herself, who has taken Castellvi under her wing and is coaching her on this USTA circuit venture.

"For Gigi to decide to coach Vilmarie means that she has to have seen Vilmarie's potential," said P.R. Tennis Association Fed Cup GM Humberto Soto. "Gig has said Vilmarie has one of the top 10 backhands in tennis. And Gigi is not the kind of person to take on a challenge unless she's sure she's going to win. Gigi is a competitor and a winner."

This weekend, Castellvi and Brandi are competing in the same tournament -- Castellvi's biggest ever -- the $50,000 Long Island Tennis Classic in Oyster Bay, N.Y.

"The biggest challenge Vil faces is getting used to playing week after week because that is not what it's like in college," said Fernandez of Castellvi's circuit start. "I'm happy to help Vilmarie make the transition. I really believe she has the ability to be among the top 50 players. With the continuing support of the P.R. Olympic Committee, the USTA and the PRTA and a lot of hard work, Vilmarie will have a long and successful career."

While Castellvi is just getting started, Brandi is on the comeback trail. Ranked in the top 50 for six straight years, Brandi had to take time off in 2001 due to a wrist injury. After winning her last three USTA circuit tournaments, she was ranked sixth going into the Long Island Tennis Classic. Her best career finish was the fourth round of Wimbledon in 2000 and a victory at a WTA Tour event in The Netherlands in 1999.

With Brandi now on Puerto Rico's team and Castellvi's career blooming, Puerto Rico finally has the one-two punch it needs to fight for a medal in women's doubles at the Pan Am Games during the first week of August. Fernandez, who is the women's coach at the University of South Florida in Tampa, will be in Santo Domingo to coach the team, Soto confirmed this week. Fernandez, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in women's doubles, has officially coached Puerto Rico's national team since 1999. Representing Puerto Rico, she won six Pan Am Games medals in the sport during her playing career and carried the Puerto Rican flag into the 1983 Pan Ams in Venezuela.

"The competition is not going to be easy. In addition to the U.S. players, you can't rule out Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Colombia or Mexico," Soto said.

The updated USTA rankings are due out next week, but Soto said Brandi's current ranking hovers around 122 while Castellvi is somewhere near No. 490.

"We won't know the official entries from the other countries for two more weeks, but our projections indicate that Kristina should be seeded among the top eight, maybe as high as fifth," Soto said. "According to Gigi's analysis, Kristina has a chance to make it to the finals. That is our most profound desire. To see Kristina win a bronze medal would really be something because her comeback thus far has just been tremendous."

The U.S. revealed its Pan Am Games team this week. It includes Ansley Cargill, who is the top seed at Oyster Bay.

"I checked out Ansley Cargill, who is playing for the US and she has nothing on Vil or Kristina," Fernandez said.

The hardcourt surface should also help give Puerto Rico an edge over the rest of Central America.

Fernandez said Castellvi will continue on the circuit, with plans to play in Lexington, Ky., next week. Castellvi will likely skip the Louisville, Ky., tournament to rest up for the Pan Am Games. Following the Pan Ams, Castellvi will play in a tournament in the Bronx before heading to the U.S. Open.

Rivera wins bronze at World University Weightlifting Games

Puerto Rican weightlifter Ruth Rivera got a huge boost en route to next month's Pan Am Games last week after she won a bronze medal during the World Weightlifting University Games held last week in Pavia, Italy. Rivera, competing in the 137-pound category, lifted 190.25 pounds in the snatch competition.

Gabrielle Paese is the Assistant Sports Editor at the San Juan Star. She is the 2000 recipient of the Overseas Press Club's Rafael Pont Flores Award for excellence in sports reporting. Comments or suggestions? Contact Gabrielle at

Her Column, Puerto Rico Sports Beat, appears weekly in the Puerto Rico Herald.

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