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Bucky Gleason: Top women's tennis player hits a winner choosing UB

Chantal Martinez Blanco still gets teased by family and friends about her college choice when she returns to Puerto Rico. Three years after she left the sunshine and comforts of the Caribbean island to pursue better tennis and a quality education, they continue to ask the same question:

Why the University at Buffalo?

Even she didn't fully understand the answer when she left the outskirts of San Juan after high school and took the road less traveled to Western New York. Growing up, she had been Puerto Rico's top-ranked girls player in every age bracket and often fantasized about playing at a world-class level. But she also had other plans.

Martinez-Blanco wanted to expand her life by attending college in the United States and add experiences she had viewed from afar. She hoped to improve the quality of her academics and make friends while feeding her competitive spirit. She and her parents had one tiny request in addition to all of the above:

It had to be free.

"It was a family goal for sure," Martinez-Blanco said. "For (her parents), it was more financially based than myself. I was thinking more toward tennis and the great time I was going to have. For them, it was a financial relief. It was a family goal, not just mine. And I chose the right sport."

Buffalo has plenty of tennis players with so many private academies, country clubs, youth organizations and high schools offering a chance to play. But it's a football and hockey town that has produced a few Olympians and a share of professionals in other sports. It's hardly a tennis hotbed.

Jimmy Arias is from Grand Island, but he retired from the professional tour nearly 25 years ago. UB has two local players on the women's roster, sophomores Haley Hollins and Sydney Siembida. Hollins is the daughter of former professional baseball player Dave Hollins.

Martinez-Blanco, who started playing at age 6, has emerged as their top player. At 5-foot-3, she doesn't overpower her opponents. She wears them down with ground strokes while tapping into her full arsenal. "I use my entire toolbox," she said. Her game would have been effective anywhere between Florida and New York.

No wonder why people ask, "Why Buffalo?"

"It happens all the time," she said. "It has become a little bit annoying. It's joking, I know. They know it's a good school. But coming from such a warm place, the main focus is, 'Buffalo? That's sooo cooold.' At this point, I've introduced humor to it. I tell them, 'It's really cold. I immediately freeze.' "

Martinez-Blanco, who prefers the hyphen in her last name on second reference as a tribute connecting her parents Frankie Martinez and Lorelay Blanco, didn't care where she played. But he was determined to check all boxes on her terms. Numerous southern schools showed interest but weren't prepared to offer her a scholarship early in her senior year of high school.

Buffalo did.

UB tennis coach Kristen (Ortman) Maines invited Martinez-Blanco to Buffalo for a visit, sold her on the business program, introduced her to the team and offered one of the eight full scholarships available. Martinez-Blanco immediately accepted and joined a team that looks like a roll call for the United Nations.

Martinez-Blanco, a junior, has designs on capping her senior season with a third NCAA appearance. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

Ten team members hail from seven countries, plus Puerto Rico. The only thing separating most of them is the degree to which their English is broken. There's nothing broken about their tennis. They finished 8-0 in the conference while winning 14 straight matches overall. Playing for Buffalo was the best decision Martinez-Blanco could have made.

She led UB into its second straight NCAA Tournament when the Bulls won the Mid-American Conference tournament April 29. UB had reached the NCAAs only once, in 2008, before Martinez-Blanco arrived and evolved into a first-team all-MAC selection. The Bulls will play in the first round Friday at Northwestern.

"The first meeting, they tell you, 'You're here to bring a championship to the school,' " she said. "When you're a freshman, you look at everything like it's astonishing. I've been able to do more than I hoped. To get at least one was my individual goal. To be able to do it twice in a row, and I have a third chance, it's incredible."

Martinez-Blanco, a junior, was 23-7 in singles matches this year and remains on pace for the most wins in program history. She and Lolade Ogungbesan, of England, finished 19-7 in doubles. Eight team members are expected to return next season with the idea of reaching the NCAAs for a third consecutive season.

The UB women's team is an example of Title IX working at his finest. Under Title IX, the number of scholarship dollars for men and women are proportional to the rates of enrollment for each gender. Division I football programs offer 85 scholarships and there is not a corresponding women's sport that has nearly that many, so a sport such as women's tennis benefits even though it doesn't drive revenue and flies under the radar.

Martinez-Blanco, who long ago accepted the long odds against turning pro, is getting an education that otherwise would have cost about $120,000 for out-of-state students. That's a pretty good score. She plans to leave with an economics degree and a minor in French. In return, she's an ambassador for the university.

"I haven't paid a single penny," she said.

Martinez-Blanco's parents own an insurance company in Puerto Rico, which was devastated by Hurricane Maria last September. They're doing their part to put the island back together. Their daughter has urged tourists to visit her homeland, thereby pumping money into the local economy.

In that sense, she's also become an ambassador for Puerto Rico. Three years after leaving home, who would have guessed Martinez-Blanco would have been spared weather problems by moving to Buffalo, of all places? If she learned anything, it was that rays of sunshine can be found anywhere.

It depends on your perspective.

"I knew going to the north I was going to receive cold weather," she said. "That wasn't my end goal, to be comfortable with the weather. I had great comfort for 18 years when living in paradise. My goal was to go to a place that would give me a full scholarship while studying in a great program. I received that here. I'm satisfied."

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