COLUMBIA — As a 6-year-old on the clay courts in her native home of Quito, Ecuador, junior MU tennis player Sofia Ayala used to color herself orange from head to toe.
“Back home we have clay courts,” Ayala said. “My father used to bring me to the courts to watch him play, and I would start to play with the clay. I would make castles like you do in the sand. And I would just be orange from my head to my toes. Always.”
Her father, an avid tennis player, used to bring Ayala to watch him play in the hopes that the sport — not the clay — would rub off on her.
“I always knew I was coming to the states, that was always my dad’s goal,” Ayala said. “He saw it (tennis) as an investment so university will be free.”
Twelve years later, Ayala achieved her father’s goal. She earned a scholarship to play at the University of Alabama. However, after breaking her foot in a match against the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga during her sophomore season, Ayala, the former No. 1 juniors player in Ecuador, decided she wanted a “new beginning” and she transferred to MU. Although she has struggled thus far, claiming only the consolation singles title at the Drake Invitational on Sept. 9 in Des Moines, Iowa, she is enjoying her new school and team.
“The girl’s coming off a broken foot,” MU Tennis coach Blake Starkey said. “I can’t think of anything in tennis you need more than your feet. She’s clearly a talented player. Before this is all said and done, whether it’s this year or next year, there are going to be a few days where we’re like ‘we’re really glad that kid’s on our team.’”
Ayala’s potential is the reason Starkey recruited her so aggressively. After she signed her release from the Crimson Tide, where she had been the No. 1 doubles player and No. 2 singles player, numerous schools sought her commitment. Knowing the competition, Starkey flew down to Tuscaloosa to meet with Ayala in person.
“I felt for us to get her, we had to do something a little different,” Starkey said. “Literally going there and talking face-to-face kind of separated us from some of the other schools trying to get her as a transfer. And I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”
Ayala said Starkey’s face-to-face meeting separated MU from the other schools pursuing her. According to Ayala, the two met on May 5 in Tuscaloosa, and because she was so impressed with Starkey, she committed five days later on an unofficial visit to MU.
“We had a really good connection,” Ayala said. “When I first met Blake, the next day I was like I really want to go. He was awesome. I really liked his ideas. He was so smooth, so calm. And I was just like, if he’s my coach everything will be awesome ...He’s so excited about this team. That’s what I like the most. He encourages us a lot.”
The fact that Starkey pursued Ayala is evidence of her talent. According to Starkey, compared to teams in the Big 12, MU has the highest score requirement for the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) exam, a test universities give to perspective non-native English speaking students who want to study in the U.S. Therefore, in recent years Starkey has strived for an “all domestic team.” But, he says, Ayala’s experience was too valuable to pass up.
“I knew the talent was there,” Starkey said. “Sofia added value, she added depth. Here’s a girl playing high in the SECC. There were some things about her, coming in as a junior, even though she was coming from another program, she was going to be really able to assist the younger players, which is something we wanted.”
However, Ayala says it has been hard being the lone international player on the team. While at Alabama, there were five international players whom she could relate to.
“It’s weird,” Ayala said. “It’s easy when there are other international people around me because they’re so far away from home too.”
Before Alabama and MU, Ayala was one of the top players in the International Tennis Federation. Not only was she ranked the No. 1 juniors player in Ecuador when she was 18, but she was also twice a part of the Ecuador Federation Tennis Team, which consisted of only three players. Both years she played for her country: 1999 in Porto Alegre, Brazil and 2001 in Bogota, Columbia. Ecuador won the South American Tennis Championship. The country had never won the tournament before 1999.
“It was amazing,” Ayala said. “Before we won the tournament, Ecuador was never No. 1 in South America. We were the first team to win it.”
Although adjusting to a new school and team has been difficult, Ayala says she made the right choice.
“I don’t regret my decision,” she said. “I love MU.”