Born to Serve – Freshman Julia Cohen continues family tradition of tennis excellence
UF tennis player Julia Cohen hits the ball during the Gators' 6-1 win against Mississippi at Linder Stadium on March 21. (Harrison Diamond / Alligator Staff)

Before she even set foot in this world, Julia Cohen didn't have much of a choice.

Even if she had, it probably would have been the easiest decision of her life to make.

"My dad played [tennis] for the University of Pennsylvania and my mom plays as well," Cohen said. "So before I was born I was going to be a tennis player."

Now, it seems pretty clear to the UF freshman that this was the right path to take - or be forced into, for that matter.

Cohen started hitting tennis balls when she was just 2 years old. She began playing in tournaments when she was 5, and at 6 she was ranked No. 1 in 18-and-under doubles in the United States Tennis Association Middle States region, which include Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.

"When I was 8, I was pretty good," she said. "I won like eight internationals, so we knew I was pretty good when I was younger."

Next, Cohen was a national champion in the 9-and-under division, and at 11 she was the top-ranked 12-and-under singles player in the U.S.

She played her first professional event when she was just 14, and she reached No. 6 in the International Tennis Federation Junior Rankings when she was 15.

As a member of the UF women's tennis team, Cohen has skyrocketed up the Intercollegiate Tennis Association rankings this season to No. 27.

She currently has a professional ranking of No. 398 in the Women's Tennis Association Tour singles rankings and was once as high as No. 360 in the world.

Cohen will help lead the No. 5 Gators (18-1, 11-0 Southeastern Conference) in the upcoming postseason stretch, beginning with the SEC Tournament in Auburn, Ala., on Friday.

While her accomplishments continue to snowball, Cohen remembers that it all started with her family's love for the game.

Keeping the Tradition

Cohen has lived in Philadelphia her entire life, just five minutes from the University of Pennsylvania, where she played tennis every day growing up.

The City of Brotherly Love could hardly measure up to the passion her family had for tennis.

Her father, Richard Cohen, was captain of the tennis team while he was at Penn. He pursued a professional tennis career for two years after college before going to medical school.

"I wasn't good enough to do it consistently, and I wasn't earning my expenses," said Richard Cohen, a board-certified psychiatrist for more than 30 years. "So although my love was tennis, I decided to go to med school."

Cohen's 23-year-old brother, Josh, graduated from Miami last year as an All-American on the men's tennis team. He is now the men's tennis assistant coach at Penn.

"Josh is probably the best player in the family," Richard said. "Julia's a close second, and I'm a far third. My wife's a pretty good player, and she's fourth."

Battling for those spots in the family pecking order is a favorite pastime for the Cohens. Julia teams up with Richard in mixed doubles, and they take on Josh and Nancy, Julia's mother.

"In that, anyone can win," Richard said. "But it's extremely competitive and for bragging rights. It's a lot of fun."

Julia and Josh keep things competitive between themselves as well.

"They have such fierce battles on the court," Richard said. "It's very interesting to watch. Off the ground they really go at each other."

During her spring break just a few weeks ago, Cohen traveled with her father to South Barrington, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, to play in the USTA Senior National Father-Daughter Indoor Doubles Championships.

Cohen came away with her 15th career Gold Ball, a token symbolic of a national title.

"It was wonderful to win a national championship and get a Gold Ball," 61-year-old Richard Cohen said. "Especially when you win it with your daughter, it's really amazing. I won the National Father and Son (Championships) with Josh, and to win it with Julia was just amazing."

The Cohens entered the match as the No. 2 seed, facing the No. 1 seed and leaving with a thrilling 7-6 (4), 2-6, 7-6 (6) victory.

Down 6-5 and match point in the third-set tiebreak, Julia hit a backhand winner down the line to save the match and give her and her dad the momentum they needed to win.

"I was so happy because any time I can win for my dad it means a lot to me," Cohen said. "I'd prefer to win with him than other stuff because it means so much to him."

Richard added, "It was about the best experience of my life to win a national championship with my kid. I didn't expect it. To see Julia that happy and play that well was just fantastic."

College or Pro?

Cohen knew a little bit about UF through another Philadelphia native and former Gator, UF Hall of Famer and Grand Slam doubles champion Lisa Raymond. Raymond gave her some advice on attending college before turning pro.

"She's from Philadelphia, so when she's there I meet with her," Cohen said. "She came to Florida, and she told me that it'd be a good choice for me."

Raymond, whose highest WTA singles ranking was No. 15, told Cohen about her experience at UF while the two were practicing together in Philadelphia.

"She told me that they treat the athletes really well, and it's a great atmosphere and the tennis program will help my game a lot," Cohen said.

Cohen watched Raymond play when she was growing up and even played with her at a young age.

"I actually hit with her when I was like 7 years old," Cohen said. "She plays a lot differently from me. … But I still look up to her a lot."

Cohen was one of the top recruits in the U.S., but many thought she was just going to turn pro. Her father said about 200 schools called him and he told them the same thing.

The plans changed, however, about five months ago.

UF head coach Roland Thornqvist had followed Cohen since she was about 12 years old, when she started playing junior events in Florida.

"We were trying to get her to come in the fall, but she wanted to continue to play (pro tournaments)," Thornqvist said. "And then she called us in November, December maybe, and said, 'Hey, I'm thinking about going to school.'"

Cohen visited UF in December for the first time and made her choice between school and a pro career a bit easier.

"At the last second, she visited Florida and fell in love with it," Richard said. "Roland came up to Philadelphia. We had a great visit. We spent a lot of time together, and I thought he was a super coach. So we made the decision for her to go to Florida right now and put off the pro career."

She enrolled in January and missed the first week of class to play in a professional tournament.

When she finally arrived, she wasn't used to being in classes with a large number of people, as she had been home-schooled since third grade.

Cohen's teammates helped her adjust to college life right away, but it didn't take much for her to fit right in.

"I took the same classes as she's taking right now, so I said something about those classes," sophomore Csilla Borsanyi said. "But basically that's it, because she's very (mature) on the court, so she doesn't really need advice on the court."

"She's very nice but she's really, really shy. Then she just opened up, and she's just so funny that we have to laugh at her all the time."

Spark Plug

Cohen's presence changed the dynamics of this year's team right away.

She came in and started playing at the No. 1 position, something very rare for a freshman to do in college tennis.

"Even though she is playing (Court No.) 1, she's handled herself perfectly," Thornqvist said. "She's allowed the seniors to lead. There's never been any feathers ruffled by her coming in playing one. She's been very respectful to the others, and she's followed along with their leadership, which has allowed the chemistry of this team to be maybe the best it's been in years."

Cohen has used her speed and defense along with her ability to exploit opponents' weaknesses en route to a 13-3 singles record. She has teamed up with sophomore Anastasia Revzina in doubles, and the duo is unbeaten.

"We started to play doubles, and we really got to know each other," Revzina said. "I couldn't wish for a better doubles partner. … We're still undefeated, and we're so proud of it."

Cohen has already been named SEC Freshman of the Year by the league's coaches and her squad is the favorite to win the conference tournament, but she has her sights on another prize.

"I'd like to win a national championship," Cohen said. "That'd mean a lot to me."

After the season ends, Cohen will be pressed to make a decision to remain in college for at least another year or turn pro.

"We've talked loosely about it," Thornqvist said. "I think she's on the two-year program here. She'll play two years. Maybe she'll play a lot of WTA events this coming fall. Maybe a very small number of college events. And then play another season next spring and maybe see where that takes it."

Richard agrees.

"She'll probably stay in college another year," he said. "Then we'll see where she's at, re-evaluate things and possibly go pro after that if her game's ready for it."

And as for her limit in the professional world, her father has high hopes.

"I think she's got the potential to be top 25 in the world if she develops her transition game and her serve," Richard said.

Until then, it's the college way for Cohen.

She described a typical day as tennis in the morning, then class, more tennis in the afternoon, running on her own, sleeping, waking up and playing more tennis.

It's hard to get Cohen off the court, but when it happens, she always reverts back to the game she loves most.

"I like to go running, shopping," she said. "I really like to play tennis every day though. It's hard for me to stay away from it."

After all, did she ever really have a choice?