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Brother’s Success Spurs Ruffels to Change Course

By Lisa D. Mickey

| Jul 18, 2016 | Paramus, N.J.

Gabriela Ruffels has quickly developed a competitive golf game after dedicating much of her youth to tennis. (USGA/Jeff Haynes)

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You could say that a competitive spirit runs in the family for Gabriela Ruffels, 16, of Australia, who is playing in her first USGA championship this week, the U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship.

Her mother, Anna-Maria Fernandez, a California native, won five Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) doubles titles and reached a world singles ranking of No. 19 in 1980.

Her father, Ray Ruffels, who reached a high of No. 27 in the world tennis rankings in 1976, was a three-time Australian Open semifinalist (1968, 1969, 1975). He was also a four-time member of Australia’s Davis Cup team, won eight singles titles and 16 doubles titles, including the 1977 Australian Open doubles crown, and reached the 1978 mixed-doubles finals at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open with partner Billie Jean King.

Gabriela’s brother, Ryan Ruffels, 18, made his professional golf debut in January at the PGA Tour’s Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines. In 2014, he won the Junior World Championship and the Australian Junior, and tied for 28th in the Australian Open as an amateur.

Up until a year and a half ago, Gabriela seemed to be following in the footsteps of her tennis-playing parents. She won an Australian national tennis tournament, was a top-ranked amateur player and was enrolled in Australia’s national tennis academy.

But after six years of hammering forehands and chasing drop shots at junior tournaments around the world, the youngest member of the Ruffels family put down her racquet and picked up golf clubs.

“Tennis just got a little too intense for me,” said Ruffels, who was Australia’s top-ranked junior at age 12, and its third-ranked female player by age 14. “I left school to study in home-school classes and to travel for tennis, but I lost my enjoyment for it. I was burnt out when I quit.”

Ruffels had competed in International Tennis Federation [ITF] tournaments in Europe, where she recorded 21 doubles wins at the highest international junior level. Every summer, she packed her bags and headed abroad for tournaments.

“If I had continued, I probably would have played in some of the junior Grand Slam championships,” she said.

But while she was beginning to wrestle with her interest in the game she played, her brother – who had also played tennis – was stepping up his golf game and moving forward as a pro.

“I’ve always watched my brother and I just decided, why not try golf?” she said. “It’s a lot more relaxing than tennis.”

Ruffels had dabbled in golf, picking up clubs every six months or so to hit shots. But after considerable thought, she finally got serious about it.

“Golf is relaxing and social and it’s really different than tennis,” said Ruffels, who currently holds a Handicap Index® of 0.5. “In tennis, the person on the other side of the net is your enemy.”

When asked how she became so accomplished in golf so quickly, Ruffels shrugged.

“I’m really motivated to get better and I practice for about three hours every night after school,” she said. “Tennis taught me that if you work hard, you will achieve your goals.”

“I think what’s helped her a lot is she played some big international events in tennis,” said Anna-Maria, who was the 1981 AIAW singles national champion for the University of Southern California. “Mentally, tennis has helped her.”

This week, Ruffels’ mother is with her at the U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship while her dad is in Oakville, Ontario, with her brother, who played in Monday qualifying for the PGA Tour’s RBC Canadian Open.

Just as the daughters of tennis Grand Slam winners Petr Korda and Ivan Lendl have chosen golf over tennis – with Jessica Korda already winning on the LPGA Tour, and Lendl’s five daughters – Marika, Isabelle, Daniela, Nikola and Caroline – also making their marks as solid amateur and collegiate players, Ruffels hopes to keep moving forward in her game.

“I don’t really have any expectations this week,” she said. “I’ve played for less than two years and I’m still just enjoying the ride. I’m really trying to have a good attitude and to play my best, and we’ll just see where it goes.”

Lisa D. Mickey is a Florida-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites.

68th U.S. Girls' Junior