It comes as no surprise that Julieta Pareja’s game-style is patterned after all her favorite tennis players, who just so happen to come from countries closely tied to Pareja’s extended family in South America and who speak the same second language of Spanish as Pareja does. “Rafa is my favorite, of course,” said Pareja, 13-years-old and an eighth grader at Calavera Hills Middle School in Carlsbad, who is among the top-ranked players in the USTA national rankings for players 14-and-under. “I also love to watch matches from the past eras like David Nalbandian, Guillermo Coria and Gustavo Kuerten. I love to watch them play and their game-style.”
Argentina’s Nalbandian and Coria and Brazil’s Kuerten are now retired, of course, so YouTube will have to do for Pareja, who recently won a round of the US Open junior qualifying tournament beating an 18-year-old from Poland who is among the top 100 players in the ITF junior world rankings. That’s no small feat for someone just 13. “It was such an amazing experience,” Julieta said of being in New York for the first time with father Pablo, who was born in the U.S., after his father emigrated from Colombia, and mother Adriana, who is originally from Bogota. “Just getting to know the level against 18-year-olds. It was very different from the 14s.” Julieta was granted the wild card into qualifying by the USTA by way of winning the USTA Clay Court Nationals on the heat and clay of Plantation, Fla., in July.
She said her US Open highlight – besides her play on court and winning a round at her first Grand Slam – was being able to see Nadal play in person for the first time in Arthur Ashe Stadium. It was another of her favorite players Carlos Alcaraz who went on to win the Open with Julieta watching all the action in the final from home. “He just had so many amazing points, and the way he stretches to get to the balls is just amazing,” she said. And yet there is something else she has in common with the Spaniards she looks up to: “I love the clay, and I love to slide,” Julieta said.
Before she had ever heard the name Nadal though, Pareja idolized her two older sisters Raquel and Antonia, who started playing tennis on the public parks in San Diego when they were 7 and 5, and little Julieta was still in a stroller. Raquel played previously for UC Irvine opting to sit this year out while middle sister Antonia is a freshman on scholarship playing for Purdue University in Indiana.
Currently, National Hispanic Heritage Month is being celebrated, and the Pareja family has taken time out to pause and celebrate what their Hispanic heritage means to each of them. “This being Spanish Heritage month, it means a lot to me because it reminds me of my family’s ethnic backgrounds and where they come from,” Antonia said. “I will always have Colombia in my heart and will be proud of the hard-working and kind-hearted people they are. The unique and diverse cultural traditions in Colombia are something that I will carry with me forever, as well as devouring these everyday traditional foods like arepas, el ajiaco, la fritanga, empanadas, patacones, and much more.”
Mother Adriana said there have been sacrifices along the way, and the road has had its bumps. “The girls are bilingual and have always been very proud of their heritage,” Adriana said. “Their last name is Pareja, so they better be proud of it!” She continued: “It’s a tough journey, but we have stayed for the love of tennis. Success is not measured on how high you get in the rankings. Some will burn out. That happens and not everyone has the same passion. But it’s just so important they do it for the right reasons. Everyone eventually finds their place and we always stress to the girls that tennis teaches you such great life lessons.”
While Julieta has already competed in Paris at Les Petis As, and Mexico and the Czech Republic for Team USA, Antonia called herself an “average tennis player” growing up, who worked hard and strived to achieve a scholarship and to play Division I tennis. “Growing up and learning tennis on public tennis courts was different than normal top juniors who are in a country club setting or academies because I relied heavily on my family for practice and mentorship,” Antonia said. “As sisters, we pushed each other to the maximum level in a limited amount of time. When compared to the number of hours that players play in academies, we had to use our practices more effectively.
Antonia said she would often imitate the top WTA players in what she wore on court and felt “unstoppable” at times competing against the best that the SoCal juniors had to offer. “I would gain my confidence in matches by imitating Victoria Azarenka’s grunt, copying some of her strategies, and feel like I was playing in the Australian Open with a full-capacity crowd in Rod Laver Arena when in reality I was playing a level 3 local tournament in Barnes Tennis Center on court 21.” She remains so proud of her little sister Julieta and all she has achieved so early in her junior career. “I believe that my oldest sister and I have made a contribution to Julieta’s growth in her tennis development,” Antonia said. “The main reason why Julieta has been showing success in her tournaments and her competitions, which includes her going to the US Open, is due to her discipline, her obedience, her focus and concentration, and finally being a good listener on the practice court.”
For the past 21 years, the Pareja family has lived in Carlsbad and throughout that time the three tennis-playing sisters have achieved success both on and off the court through hard work, dedication and exemplary sportsmanship taught to them by their parents. “I’m just a public parks kid from Carlsbad,” said Julieta, when answering the question of following in her older sisters’ footsteps to play Division I college tennis, or perhaps turn pro. “I don’t know what my future holds, but I’m going to try and reach my fullest potential and see where that takes me.”