Tennis is a mind and body game requiring not only fitness and endurance but the ability to sustain the will to win through hours of grueling play.
It’s called mental toughness.
Albuquerque sisters Ivana and Carmen Corley showed those qualities in September as they battled to win a match against professionals at the Coleman Vision Tennis Championships.
The girls have won high school state titles, and competed successfully at regional, national and international tournaments.
“I think they’re the best female players to come out of Albuquerque in a long time,” said Alan Dils, a former University of New Mexico Men’s coach.
Ivana Corley, 18, is headed next year to the University of Oklahoma on a full-ride tennis scholarship. Carmen Corley, 16, has her sights on college too, despite the lure of going professional.
Dils attributes their success to innate talent, years of coaching, an intense training schedule, unstinting family support and a passion for the game.
Dils is now a staff coach at the Lobo Performance Tennis Academy, where he works with the Corleys and other promising young local players.
Tennis has been an all-consuming passion for the Corley family since the sisters first tried the sport when they were 5 and 7 years old. Although neither of their parents, Eddie and Maria Corley, had a tennis background, they arranged private lessons for their girls.
The youngsters were soon playing matches. But success took a while.
Eddie Corley recalled his disappointment at the first tournament he watched.
“I expected them to look like Venus and Serena (Williams), but they were like a shirt tail swinging in the breeze and missing the ball completely,” Eddie Corley said. He suggested to his wife that they might need to find another sport.
Maria Corley noticed that other girls at tournaments they attended in Arizona displayed greater consistency in their play. And they weren’t afraid to challenge questionable points.
“They were very tough and matter of fact. No one was going to push them around,” she said. “That doesn’t always work in sports. You have to stand up for yourself.”
Maria Corley started what they nicknamed “Camp Corley”; daily practice at the tennis courts in the East Mountain community where they lived. During summer vacations they would sometimes spend hours practicing in the heat of the day so the girls would be used to Arizona conditions.
“We were crying when we came off the court because it was so hot, but our mom made us stick with it and it paid off, I think, a lot,” said Ivana Corley.
Time and effort
By the time they reached middle school age, their tennis commitments were so extensive that they enrolled in New Mexico Connections Academy, a tuition-free public online school. They heard about it from other junior tennis players.
“It’s worked really well. We’re able to manage our tennis schedule with our school schedule,” Carmen Corley said.
They also began working several times a week with coaches at the Lobo Performance Tennis Academy. It operates at the Lobo Tennis Club facility next to the University of New Mexico football stadium. Director Johnny Kowalski said the competition-oriented training is for young players from 8 through 18 years old. They do drills for fitness, endurance and strength.
“The Corleys are part of this crew. They’ve made their way. They’ve definitely put a lot of time and effort to get where they’re at and it’s nice to see they’re getting these achievements,” Kowalski said.
As they rose through levels of competition in singles and doubles matches, they expanded their training regimen to include conditioning workouts and nutrition guidance at Elevate PWH Fitness Facility.
Former tennis pro Christine Paulsen coordinates their schedule and travels with them to matches when a parent can’t make it. She said the girls are hardworking and focused. When they play against each other they remain supportive and leave any rivalry on the court.
Both parents say the drive to push harder comes from the girls themselves. If a tournament date conflicted with a social event, the girls always chose tennis, Maria Corley said.
David Ochotorena, the former director at the Tennis Club of Albuquerque who worked with the girls in their early years, said Albuquerque isn’t known as a tennis hub. Promising players have to travel to find good competition and adjust to different weather conditions and altitudes. He said the Corley sisters show a lot of grit.
“They are pretty tenacious and driven young ladies,” said Ochotorena.
Ivana Corley admitted that playing competitively can be an “emotional roller coaster,” but she hates to lose.
“It’s definitely the feeling of hating to lose that pushes a lot of athletes and I think that’s what pushes us,” she said.
According to Carmen Corley, the winning edge comes down to mental toughness. “It’s always just who’s mentally stronger — that’s who wins the match. You have to think your way through. You have to find weaknesses and be positive the whole time,” she said.
The sisters say they’ve benefited from all the coaches they’ve worked with over the years. Asked who are their tennis idols they don’t hesitate for a moment.
“Definitely the Williams sisters! They’re probably our biggest idols, our main inspiration,” said Carmen Corley. “Their story, their background and them being African-American.”
The time-consuming training regimen and hectic travel schedule have put demands on the family. Maria Corley is dedicated full time to the girls’ training schedules. Eddie Corley is the owner of Corleys Albuquerque Lincoln car dealership. He admits that if he had known at the beginning how much commitment it would take in terms of time, money and other resources, he would have said no.
But having the experience with his two older daughters, he is eager to go through it again with his 10-year-old twins, Vivica and Vianca, who are already promising players.
“We are a tennis family,” said Eddie Corley.