When your Girlfriend is also your Doubles Partner

Few people in tennis share the court with their significant other, and for Argentine players Nadia Podoroska and Guillermina Naya, their off-court partnership just turned professonal when they paired up in doubles last month at the Copa LP in Chile. Ahead of one of the last tournaments of the year in Naya’s hometown of Buenos Aires, they sat down with CLAY’s Sebastián Varela. In excerpts of this interview, they talk about traveling the tennis tour for the past two years as a couple, words of encouragement from Billie Jean King and what took them so long to make their on-court debut. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity, read the original piece, as well as others with Latin American perspective, on tennis at CLAY.

A few hours ago you were playing the Billie Jean King Cup on fast courts in Slovakia, and now you have just played on clay, at the foot of the Andes Mountains. Mastering jet lag is a requirement to be a tennis player.

Nadia Podoroska (NP): We have no choice! I think this career helps you to adapt to conditions, to circumstances. We do it every week. Sometimes you travel within Europe, which are short flights, and you don’t change surfaces… there are times like this, when you have to travel to the other part of the world to play on another surface.

Guillermina Naya (GN): We are on autopilot.

NP: If the clock says it’s eight o’clock, I have to have dinner anywhere, even if my body has a different schedule. I try to adhere to a schedule because otherwise it is more difficult to adapt.

You got off the plane and played your first professional match together [at the Copa LP in Chile]. How did that feel?

NP: Happy, because we had wanted to play together for a long time. We joked and imagined what it was going to be like. Beyond the results, I like being able to share the court with her, something we both do separately, but being able to do it together is something special.

GN: Ummmm, I was a little tense.

Did it mean an extra pressure to play alongside your girlfriend?

GN: It was mostly because I wanted to do well. Not because it was with Nadia, but because I wanted to do well. It was the first time I played any WTA main draw. I was pretty tense at first, but then we sorted ourselves out and it went really well.

Does the fact that you know each other so well off the court help the dynamic on the court?

NP: I don’t think so.

GN: That didn’t happen!

NP: It can help because we can know when the other is nervous or what she might be thinking, but when it comes to making decisions, it’s also good to leave that aside because you have to focus on what you have to do, regardless of how you feel. She knows that I will do my best to win, and I know the same about her.

What was the story when Nadia refused to play doubles together?

GN: Did you see that? She rejected me and on top of that she won the tournament! The thing is that at that time we didn’t know each other that well, it was more of a hello and goodbye relationship.

NP: In my defense…

GN: You have to let me finish talking!

NP: Well, finish, finish.

GN: I said, “well, another Argentinean, we know each other by sight, I’m going to ask her to play doubles.” She told me she was not going to play, then I saw that she won the doubles and I said “noooooo.”

Like a dagger in your heart.

GN: Haha, no. I forgave her, although I still bug her about it. Well, now you can defend yourself.

NP: It was a week that I wasn’t going to play doubles and I ended up playing because my coach asked me to play with a girl who was her friend, but it wasn’t because I didn’t want to play with Guille. The same thing happened this week. I wasn’t going to play, several players asked me, but then she enters the draw and I told her that we should take this opportunity to play together.

GN: Now I’m on the other side.

Because of your rankings you don’t usually coincide in several events, but this week was different.

NP: Out of the 52 weeks of the year, we overlap 12 weeks. We’re not like a couple that lives in the same city all year round, and then each one goes out with different group of friends and does things separately. When we are in the same place, we make all our plans together because we don’t have much time to share. In the WTA 125 there is a big gap in ranking between the players who play and that’s good for us.

Not everyone in tennis is lucky enough to be able to work with their partner. It has to be an important emotional support in a sport as solitary as this one.

GN: For me it’s a plus, it motivates me to keep improving in the ranking and to be able to play more tournaments.

How did you feel when Billie Jean King congratulated you for talking openly about your relationship?

NP: Billie Jean is someone who is very aware of what’s going on in the tour. Obviously I liked it because she’s an icon of the sport, but it’s not that I was surprised because I know she does that and she’s right there with the news. Someone so famous and well-known who is such an advocate for rights… I liked it.

GN: I thought it was incredible to see her support. To have a message like that from someone like her is impressive.

Nadia, in an interview you said: “The world is not as free as it should be”. Do you want to go deeper into that, and does it apply to the tennis world?

NP: That’s really deep, did I really say that?

GN: “I take it back!”

NP: I think there is an ideal nowadays that we have to be open, to normalize homosexuals and bisexuals, but it’s still not that free. I feel that way, there are a lot of things that one still notices on a daily basis. That the rule is to be heterosexual. I don’t want to deny all the progress that has been made in terms of rights, but there is still a big gap. We talk about the Western countries, but there are a lot of other countries, other cultures where it is unthinkable… as for the world in general, we are light years ahead.

Speaking of that, for 2024 it’s a strong possibilitiy the WTA Tour Finals will be played in Saudi Arabia. How do you feel about that?

NP: It was very close and the issue will be in discussion next year. It seems to me that the WTA should listen to the players, to women in general. In my case I would not support the WTA Finals to be played in Saudi Arabia. It is good that there is a lot of money in that part of the world and this is a business too. The wheel has to turn, I understand that. And without money we don’t play either, it’s a bit difficult on that side, but for me there are limits.

No elite male player has come out, unlike women tennis players, who have done so since the ’70s. Guillermina, you’ve said that “it’s the patriarchy’s fault”.

GN: I see it on a day-to-day basis. It is much more difficult for men because they are much more annoyed by other men. The one who doesn’t talk much, the one who is shy, people immediately say “He’s gay”. That way he will never accept himself, he will never want to get close to someone. It happens at a time like that, as I saw it, like everywhere. That’s why it’s much more difficult for them. It’s not the same for women, that’s why it’s “easier” to be able to share and accept it. In men it is much tougher.

You realized the dream of playing together. Now how about playing against each other?

NP: Well, I don’t know if it is a dream….

GN: Hopefully it doesn’t happen! Well, if it happens, we already know that what happens on the court, stays on court.

NP: May it be in a final, if there is a dream it is to face each other in a final.

GN: And in the Buenos Aires tournament. Yes, let it be in the final of Buenos Aires.

Above: Guillermina Naya and Nadia Podoroska in their debut as tennis duo at the COPA LP in Chile last month. Credit: @revesfotografico

Sebastián Varela is a co-founder of CLAY, and an award-winning journalist from Santiago de Chile.