In the midst of the greatest stretch of tennis of his Rice career, a rejuvenated Christian Saravia will return on Wednesday to the site of one of his most memorable moments to make good on a prediction his late father once made.
Saravia, who had lost his fire for the game in the fall and appeared to have called it a career, and his resurgent Rice teammates will put a seven-match winning streak on the line when the 39th ranked Owls take on 25th ranked Texas A&M at 6 p.m. at the George P. Mitchell Tennis Center in College Station.
The match is crucial for the Owls, who continue to rebound from a loss to UTSA in early March, in their drive to earn Rice's 10th consecutive NCAA bid in head coach Ron Smarr's final season. But for Saravia, it will fulfill a prediction and give him a chance to honor his late father.
As a 16-year old junior player from Guatemala, Saravia and his parents, Carlos and Jean, walked the grounds of Mitchell Tennis Center after competing in an ITF event. When they arrived at Courts 1 and 2, which are divided by the facilities club area and serve as the featured courts in the complex, Carlos Saravia predicted that one day his youngest son would be playing on these center courts.
Tennis was a part of the Saravia family. Christian's first experienced the game as a toddler and as the youngest of their four children, Christian's parents had taken the steps to allow him to reach a level of success that gave him the chance to play collegiately at Rice where he could hone his game while earning his degree from a respected institution.
Three years later, while he was with his new Rice teammates in Oxford, Mississippi competing in the opening round of the National Indoor Championships, Saravia was suddenly summoned home to Guatemala City because his parents had been involved in a serious accident that had taken his father's life and left his mother and a brother in critical condition.
Saravia immediately returned home to be by his mother's side, but even as she began a long and arduous recovery, Jean Saravia made it quickly clear that Christian had other responsibilities he could not forget.
"She reminded me how important school was. There was never a question that I would not be going back to Rice, but she didn't want me to fall behind. My mother wanted me to go back, so how could I not do as she said?"
Tennis and the challenge of catching up on school gave him brief moments of distraction from concerns about his mother's recovery.
"It helped me get busy and focus on something," he recalled. "That was a tough time, but I think those things give you clarity as to seeing things in the bigger picture and not stressing out about small things."
In early April of 2009, Saravia found himself taking the Mitchell Center courts to face the 12th ranked Aggies in a dual. He would not be playing on those main courts as his father had predicted, but the emotions were the same and Saravia delivered his greatest performance to that time. He combined with fellow freshman Sam Garforth-Bles to clinch the doubles point with a 9-8 tiebreak win. Saravia then gutted out a three-set win at No. 6 to clinch the match for Rice, a win that propelled that year's team to a seventh-straight NCAA bid.
Saravia earned C-USA Men's Tennis Athlete of the Week honors for his effort. One year later, he and his teammates ground out an electrifying win over Tulsa to capture the C-USA title on their home court. Last year, the Owls once again reached the conference finals and made their head coach college tennis' career wins leader.
Yet when faced with the start of his final season of tennis this past fall, Saravia found himself strangely indifferent.
"I had always loved playing tennis, but it had come to a point last fall when I wasn't having any fun anymore. The coaches were very supportive and told me to just take a break."
His time away allowed him to reassess his goals and he began to feel that perhaps he had not played his last match. When offered the chance to return, he did so with no expectations other than to savor every groundstroke as special, no matter if it was a winner or wide.
"I honestly didn't think I was going to come back after last semester, but once I did, I saw this was my last chance to give it my all. I knew it was my last few months of tennis and it really has helped me to approach the game better," he added.
"The first few years, I practiced really hard and played really hard, but wasn't really playing my best," Saravia recalled. "After taking a break in the fall, I wasn't really expecting to be playing this well. But I think I've been seeing the game differently. I enjoy it more and have a better view of how to approach the game. I've just been happier overall. I'm playing pretty well and been really happy with how the team has been playing, especially in the last six or seven matches," he added.
Saravia gradually broke back into the lineup, playing No. 2 doubles with Nuesslein. At the end of January, he returned to the singles lineup at No. 6. On the fateful day vs. UTSA, he won his match at No. 5, but then had to watch as his teammates could not overcome listless play in a 4-3 loss.
In the aftermath of that match, the Owls' lineup was retooled and Saravia found himself playing at No. 2 singles, while Garfoth-Bles took over at No. 1. Both had long sought a chance to play at the top of the lineup, and now they had their chance.
The move yielded quick results as the Owls have won 10 of the last 11. But wins are only numbers on paper, the true change at Jake Hess has been the energy and spirit that has generated those wins.
"I feel like everyone who is playing now is trying really, really hard. It feels like a team. We've been talking to each other about how it feels like a team and that everyone wants to win. We might not be the most talented team right now, but we are the ones who fight the hardest," Saravia said.
The atmosphere at match time is very similar to the feel in 2010, when the Owls ground their way to the conference crown.
"We were talking that in the last seven or eight matches. It feels like it did in 2010," Saravia said. "This team is fighting. Even if a guy is losing 6-1, 6-0 but is battling on the court next to you, that gets to you and rubs off on the whole team. It feels pretty good to be ending the year this way. "
He finds himself with a greater perspective on the game that has been a part of his life since he could walk.
"I practice more relaxed, I play more relaxed and it's amazing how four years of tennis can teach you about pressure situations. I used to lose a lot of matches 7-6 6-4 at number six. I would lose a lot of matches that I thought I should have won, but I let them get away. Now when I get into those tiebreakers, I feel very comfortable. Now I do it because I like it. That (perspective) is not just something you can get at a young age," he said.
When Saravia strikes his first return of service on Mitchell's number two court on Wednesday, it will be impossible to not think of his father, Carlos, and the fulfillment of his prediction.
But of equal importance will be the challenge at hand. Significant wins need to be compiled to build the Owls' resume in the eyes of the NCAA. Saravia and his fellow seniors in the lineup know what is on the line.
"None of us want this to end badly. We don't want that for Coach Smarr. When we lost to UTSA, I sat and thought about how bad it would be for this to be the last of our tennis, and the last of coach's tennis career. We don't want to be the ones to break the NCAA streak for all of us," he stated.
His mother, now fully recovered, will be in the stands on Wednesday, as will his brothers and his sister. It's an opportunity that could only have happened after Saravia decided to give tennis one more try.
"I was talking to my mom at lunch today about how cool it would be if both of them (his parents) could be there (on Wednesday) to see me play on that court. But everything happens for a reason, and I'm excited about the chance to play there in front of all my family and in a match that is so important," he said.
"I see things so much differently now. I don't feel the pressure I used to feel or stress about the small things. I just see the big picture... give your best and enjoy. The rest of it will take care of itself.
"I really feel that I am playing tennis for the best reason of all, because I enjoy it."