28 Feb 2017

The UNIQLO Interview: Junior Masters champions

News Article

Photo: Les Petits AsMartin de la Puente (ESP) and Nalani Buob (SUI)

No TitleFor the second of our new monthly UNIQLO Interviews we spoke to 2017 Cruyff Foundation Junior Masters champions Martin de la Puente (ESP) and Nalani Buob (SUI) to learn more about the latest boys' and girls' singles champions at the premier junior event on the UNIQLO Wheelchair Tennis Tour.  

Martin de la Puente (ESP)Seventeen-year-old Martin de la Puente, junior boys’ world No. 2 and currently Spain’s No. 2 ranked men’s singles player, became the latest player to win three Cruyff Foundation Junior Masters boys' singles titles at the end of January.

His most recent success in Tarbes came almost ten years since his wheelchair tennis journey began.

“I usually played on foot, but in 2007 I suffered the amputation of my left leg. My first coach told me that there was a form of tennis that I didn´t know. We began to watch videos and we made contact with a veteran Galician player, Álvaro Illobre, who explained to us how the play was,” says de la Puente, who was given his first sports wheelchair by a wheelchair basketball player.

“My first time playing wheelchair tennis was with a Galician boy. After that we became very good friends, we were going to play many tournaments together. It was amazing, and I realised that I could enjoy a lot practicing this sport.

“In 2013 I played my first ITF-Cruyff Foundation Junior Camp, I was surprised with the performance of the other players; it was a great experience. The main education of the camp was seeing that other children were in my situation, they left their problems and they could play in a high level. This was an incredible experience for me.

“For me the Junior Masters in Tarbes is something great, I feel like I’m at home. In 2017 it was my fifth time there. It is a complete success of the Les Petits As organisation making both tournaments together. I always say to the organisation staff, they are making the players feel like a sportsmen, competing in a high level tournament.

De la Puente shares success in Tarbes with Rafael Nadal, who won the Les Petits As tournament in 2000 and, not surprisingly Nadal is among the players that de la Puente looks up to.

“For all the Spaniard tennis players, Rafa Nadal is our reference, he represents better than anyone the value of effort, work hard and of the witness always being respectful with the rivals,” says de la Puente, who also shares a love of football with Nadal and supports Celta de Vigo. ”And among the wheelchair tennis players, I have a great friendship with Gustavo Fernandez. I admire him a lot as well, I have travelled, trained and learnt a lot with him.”

With Nadal and Fernandez having both gone on to Grand Slam titles, de la Puente has many ambitions of his own after being the youngest wheelchair tennis player to qualify for the men’s events at the Rio 2016 Paralympics.

“Rio de Janeiro was the best sports experience of my life, in first round I faced to the Brazilian player Carlos Santos, the stadium was full, all the public was encouraging him. Finally I could win the match and all the public gave me great support that I will never forget; it was the best the moment of the Paralympic Games for me.

“My best achievement until now has been qualifying for the Paralympic Games. It was a very hard way, I was the youngest tennis player in the Games. Now, I know that tennis is a big process of practising and learning. I would like to be able to play a Grand Slam, I await my opportunity to reach this big goal.”

Nalani Buob (SUI)Nalani Buob won her first Cruyff Foundation Junior Masters girls’ singles title in Tarbes this year, just six years after taking up wheelchair tennis

“My grade 5 teacher (at school) encouraged me to take up a sport because he felt that a sport would help me to be more independent. He informed us about a tennis trainer who taught wheelchair players. After I went for a trial lesson, I was hooked! There's been no looking back ever since,” says Buob.

“I started playing in my hometown, just a 10 minute wheelchair cruise from home (or five minutes, when I'm in a hurry).

“My first ITF-Cruyff Foundation Junior Camp was in Belgium in 2012 I enjoyed the camaraderie among like-minded and like-talented players. I enjoy the exposure to different styles and techniques from trainers from around the world. It opens up new dimensions and I like the challenges presented.”

This year’s Juniors Masters was Buob’s third and the 16-year-old world No. 1 junior also appreciates the integration and being able to play wheelchair tennis alongside the Les Petits As players.

“It's exciting being part of the big picture. The event is well organised, everything runs like clockwork. We have great volunteer drivers taking us to and from the hotel to the tennis centre and back. It's fun meeting the best players from around the world at the tennis centre. It's a very lively atmosphere - there's always something happening. And the crepes are great!

“Playing on centre court was thrilling. But scary as well!!  I was glad to see spectators coming in to watch our games, and happy that wheelchair tennis is receiving the recognition it deserves.”

While de la Puente has the likes of Rafael Nadal to look up to, Buob naturally has a certain fellow Swiss player to draw inspiration from, but there is another male role model that also inspires her.

“Apart from the tennis players like, of course Roger Federer, I also look up to my dad. He is very thorough and ambitious, and (almost) always in a good mood!  I hope to emulate his drive,” reveals Buob, who has been playing the violin from the age of five and also enjoys horse riding in between training and studying and sharing her musical talents on a grand stage.

“I have a wonderful teacher and once I start playing (violin) I feel I could go on and on for hours. I just need that shove and push to get me started! I am part of the youth orchestra and I love going for the practice sessions and playing concerts. I started riding Iceland horses from a very young age. My favourite horse is Glida, she is loving and gentle. We go riding out into the woods and it's magical.”

Aside from taking part in her first ITF-Cruyff Foundation Junior Wheelchair Tennis Camp in Belgium in 2012 Buob made her UNIQLO Wheelchair Tennis Tour debut at home in Switzerland at the 2013 ITF Futures Series Bulle Indoor.

Last season was a breakthrough year for Buob, with back to-back singles and doubles titles in South Africa and a trio of titles in France in October among her highlights, before her final singles and doubles titles of 2016 back home in Switzerland, at the Sion Indoor. However, her first main draw singles title at Cagnes sur Mer, near Nice, in France stands out for the Swiss teenager and France remains a target for Buob in her future ambitions.

“I won my first women’s tournament in the main draw in Nice, which was a very tough match for me. To win Tarbes had always been a goal for me and still is for the next two years. It meant a lot to me to win it this year, but next year I want to play much better and win it knowing that I played well and had some good shots.”

Buob’s quest for more titles will, she hopes, bring more recognition for her sport and herself at home in Switzerland, while her long-term goal currently reaches some 9600 km or almost 6000 miles beyong her home in Baar

“Spreading the awareness of wheelchair tennis around the city I live in is a great thing. It is still not as well-known as athletics (Marcel Hug is a household name here) but I am hoping to change that,” she says. “My ambition is to complete my studies in 2020 as well as qualify for the Tokyo Paralympics, which will be held a few months after my final exams.”

In order to build on her success in Tarbes this year, win more titles and achieve her dream of qualifying for Tokyo, Buob has a clear vision of what work lies ahead whilst maintaining a healthy perspective on life.

“I think I am pretty level headed and try to maintain cool during the game. I have a long way to go, there are loads of things I'd like to improve - my serve and my speed. Apart from my game, I'd like to improve my language skills, so I can make good acceptance speeches! I'll have to make time for Japanese language lessons.”