When Irene Rehberger was 12 years old, she suffered an injury that changed the course of her life.
Though she played tennis a few times a week, her main focus was becoming a professional skier in Europe. However, that changed when she broke her femur in six places in France during a skiing accident.
“My sister (Christina) was a professional skier and competed in many tournaments,” Rehberger said. “I skied quite often and wanted to follow in her footsteps — until I injured myself.”
Since 2001, the USF sophomore standout has committed herself to tennis.
Rehberger gained experience by training at Spain’s Tennis Oviedo — the same place as No. 1 professional player in the world Rafael Nadal — where she turned her skills into being a professional player.
From 2004 to 2008, Rehberger, a native of Quievdo, Spain, compiled a 93-90 record on the WTA tour and was ranked No. 420 in the world.
All the while, Rehberger was a full-time student.
“All I did was play tennis and study when I was on the pro tour,” Rehberger said. “I had no life.”
In 2008, Rehberger began considering leaving home to play tennis in America, she said. She chose to enroll at USF.
Rehberger has ties to Tampa that date back to 1999, when South Florida coach Agustin Moreno was an assistant at Texas Christian University. While at TCU, Moreno coached Esteban Carril, who ended up coaching Rehberger in Spain until she was 16.
“(Rehberger) is extremely determined and passionate in everything she does,” Carril said. “She always treated me with a great amount of respect and appreciated the tips I gave her. I enjoyed working with her, too, because I learned a lot myself. I doubt I will ever coach someone that is easier to work with.”
The 5-foot-5 sophomore said Carril played a major role in her decision process.
“(Coach Carril) was very influential in my decision to come and play for coach Moreno,” Rehberger said. “I knew that he played for coach Moreno at TCU and always had great things so say about him as a coach and a player.”
Though she loved Spain, college life in America was an opportunity Rehberger said she could not pass up.
“The experience of living in another country, learning English and playing college tennis was just too appealing,” Rehberger said. “It was tough leaving behind my family and friends, but this is an opportunity of a lifetime.”
Rehberger arrived at USF on Jan. 2. She said she had difficulty with her new classes at first but has improved throughout the semester.
She had trouble getting on the court, too. Rehberger sat out six matches before the NCAA finally granted her eligibility to play at the college level.
“It was tough having to watch and not being able to play at the beginning of the season,” Rehberger said. “Coach Moreno and (assistant coach) Luisa Obando really helped me through the whole process and made the transition much easier.”
She’s made it look easy on the court so far.
Rehberger has posted a team-best 10-1 singles record and has not lost since her first match against Texas A&M on Feb. 27, earning her the No. 48 singles ranking in the country.
“(Rehberger) has helped our team tremendously,” Obando said. “She has that fighting spirit that is contagious and makes everyone on the team better. It is so important for us to have a No. 1 player like that on our team.”
Rehberger has built close relationships with some of her teammates, including junior Lauren Shumate. Both are in the same economics class and spend time hanging out off the court.
“She is great for the team because of all the fire and emotion she brings to the court,” Shumate said. “Her energy can really carry us.”
With Rehberger leading the Bulls for two more years, Moreno feels his team can compete with the best in the nation.
“Rehberger is a champion and a fighter,” Moreno said. “I am very optimistic about our future with her leading the charge.”
Rehberger said she attributes her success to her father, who pushed her very hard on
“A family is like a treasure and should always be united. My family and extended family are very close,” she said.
However, even if tennis isn’t in her future — though she hopes it is — Rehberger has something to fall back on: law school.
“If I’m still playing tennis at the level I am right now, I would love to be on the tour and competing in tournaments,” she said. “Once I am done with tennis, I want to study to become an environmental lawyer.”