NEW YORK – Pam Shriver and Isabela Iantosca have been coming to US Opens for years, Shriver as a tennis champion and later an ESPN analyst and Iantosca as a competitor in the Junior US Open, a fan and later a marketing executive for ESPN International.
Still, they had never crossed paths on the grounds of the USTA’s Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Tuesday, that circumstance changed.
In ESPN’s broadcast booth overlooking Arthur Ashe Stadium’s court, Shriver and Iantosca celebrated a reunion of sorts, 24 years in the making: They were women’s singles foes in the 1991 Pan American Games in Havana, Cuba.
Iantosca did not expect her “hero,” Shriver, to recognize her at all so long after their brief match. Iantosca concedes Shriver, representing the United States and the eventual Pan American Games gold medalist, won their match handily and as expected.
But immediately upon seeing Iantosca, who now is senior director of marketing for ESPN International, Shriver seemed to recall aspects of her Mexican foe’s game.
“I believe you hit the ball hard and flat, if I’m remembering correctly, like a California hard court player,” said Shriver, an International Tennis Hall of Famer. “You didn’t play like a clay court player.”
Iantosca, who as Isabela Petrov competed for her native Mexico in the 1991 Games and later became a two-time All-America at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., nodded in agreement.
“You were my hero. I felt like you were so tall,” said Iantosca, who stands 5 feet, 10 inches, of the 6-foot Shriver.
“I remember that most of the top players weren’t going to play [in Cuba] but when I learned that I was going to play against you I was like, ‘This is the best chance of my life!'”
Today, Shriver and Iantosca each have young children who might further their respective families’ tennis legacies. The two chuckled comparing notes on their offsprings’ birthdays and such.
“We have all of these little connections,” Shriver said.
Shriver said that winning the Pan Am Games’ 1991 gold medal – which she still has, as she shared with Front Row in June – helped her prepare to win the US Open’s doubles title later that summer.
The modern-day Pan Am Games might have serve as Iantosca’s springboard to more tennis glory; in the 2015 competition in Toronto this summer, she coached Mexico’s women’s team to two silver medals while balancing her duties at ESPN International.
Iantosca, who won the USTA Women’s 40 Singles crown in 2014, might be a frontrunner to coach Mexico again if its national women’s team qualifies for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil.
“That’s up to the Mexican tennis federation, but [the idea] has my endorsement,” said Shriver, a 1988 Olympic gold medalist in doubles. “They’ll need someone with experience. The Olympics are very corporate and very sponsor-driven, very traditional. [But] Isabela’s your woman, Mexico, come on!”
Iantosca chuckled and thanked Shriver for the encouragement. Then they each surveyed a photo Iantosca shared of their 1991 encounter in Havana – one that Shriver had not seen in a while. She gasped at the photo of her then-trademark curls wrapped in a red, white and blue headband.
“We look the same!” Shriver said.
Now that there has been a thaw in United States-Cuba relations, would they consider visiting Havana together and perhaps play another match?
“I think in a rematch, you’d win,” Shriver told Iantosca.