What do you do in your mid-teens if you were once ranked as Australia’s best junior tennis player, you are the daughter of racquet royalty and already good enough to play in tournaments featuring future world No.1 Iga Swiatek?
You quit and play golf.
With tennis’ junior grand slams beckoning, you are destined for a life travelling the world, playing a sport that can pay you lavishly. Then you dump it all to take on an entirely different sport, albeit one that also pays lavishly. Could it work?
“I’m so much happier doing what I do now,” says Gabriela Ruffels, Australia’s latest LPGA Tour graduate. “I’m glad I made that choice.”
If you think the name is familiar, there’s good reason. Gabriela, 23, is the daughter of former tennis star Ray Ruffels, a three-time Australian Open semi-finalist and Davis Cup stalwart.
Gabriela’s mother, Anna Maria Fernandez, climbed as high as world No.19 in the world rankings. Their children, Ryan and Gabriela, spent their youth between the tramlines with a seemingly one-way ticket to tennis’s professional circuit.
Former teenage tennis prodigy Gabriela Ruffels will return to play the Australian Open after earning an LPGA Tour card.Credit: Golf Australia
Until they didn’t want to. Ryan started meddling more with golf (he’s now a professional, too), and before she turned 15, Gabriela did the same. Playing a round with other people felt more comfortable than playing an opponent across the other side of the net, even if she was good enough to be in the same tournament as Swiatek and Canada’s Felix Auger-Aliassime.
“Sometimes I think about [if I’d stayed with tennis],” Ruffels says. “I’m still a huge tennis fan and I love watching all the majors. Some of the people playing are those I grew up playing tennis with when I was 10 or 12 years old. For me with golf, the highs and lows are a little bit more measured. Tennis was more extreme. I enjoy my golf way more than I did tennis.”
Last month, Ruffels’ decision reaped its biggest reward when she punched her ticket to the lucrative LPGA Tour. It was always coming.
She was the first Australian to win the US Women’s Amateur in 2019 and finished top 15 in three professional majors the following year.
But the pandemic and years grafting on the secondary Epson Tour had slowed the progression to women’s golf biggest stage – as well as a mistake which would have tortured lesser minds.
Gabriela Ruffels and Destanee Aiava represented Australia in a junior tennis event in 2014. Aiava is currently ranked 162 on the WTA tour. Credit: Tennis Australia
Last November, Ruffels had almost finished a seven-hour drive to Alabama for a reconnaissance mission to the venue for the LPGA Tour’s qualifying school, an end-of-year golden ticket event.
She stopped at a red light when it hit her – she hadn’t registered for the tournament. When she wheeled into a petrol station to check her phone, the screen told her the registration cut-off had passed. Hard to get over?
“It didn’t take me months, just a matter of days or weeks,” Ruffels says. “I told myself the LPGA will come when I’m ready. If I’m playing well and my standard of golf is improving, then it will come. When I really earn it, I will get there.”
It happened this year as she won three times on the Epson Tour, meaning there’s no need for qualifying school this time.
“I was really proud of the way I did earn it and having it now makes it so much more special,” Ruffels says.
Later this month, Ruffels will return to Sydney for the Australian Open alongside the likes of LPGA Tour regulars Minjee Lee, Hannah Green and Grace Kim. They will play alongside the men at The Lakes and The Australian, the latter of which still has a tennis court perched high next to the clubhouse, a little reminder of the life she left behind to take up golf almost on a whim.
“It means so much to be able to come back this time of year, especially this time having secured my LPGA card,” she says. “I love Australia and I missed it for five years during COVID and with college. I just didn’t have time to get back, but I’m going to try to make it a priority every year I come back to play the Australian Open.”
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