How many of you have been delivered to your family from a bird’s mouth?
One of the stories my mom told me when I was little was that I was a gift from God, who sent me with a stork, which delivered me to my mom’s door. It’s funny thinking of that today. Then my mom told me that I came from another family, but that she loved me the same way she did her blood children. The truth is, I was adopted.
My biological mother attended a Catholic church group in Brazil, and when she got pregnant with me, she did not have the ability to raise a kid. My mom was also there, and she thought it would be a great opportunity to adopt a child. At the time, it was a very difficult moment for her. My mom was suffering from breast cancer.
But she’s a fighter. In her mind, adopting a kid had a chance to be a shining star of light to bring happiness back into her life. Thankfully she recovered, and not only did she adopt me, but she also adopted two more girls, my younger sisters, Leticia and Jessica.
I never really understood I was adopted until I was nine or 10 years old. Some kids struggle when they find out they were adopted. It is a difficult thing, and it takes time to process. But nothing changed for me. I always felt like I was a part of my family, so I just kept living. It never felt different. They gave me all the support and love that I needed, so nothing was missing from my life.
Many people have asked if I have been curious to meet my biological family. The truth is that I have not. I don’t know if it’s wrong on my part, but I always felt my family is the one I have now. Don’t get me wrong, I’m really grateful for what my biological mom did. It’s never easy to give up a son, but she knew that it would be the best thing to do so I can have a future.
There were plenty of tough situations for my mom, Fatima, from financial difficulty to breast cancer and raising all of us by herself. Trust me, that was not an easy job. But she has always inspired me and continues to do so today. I’ve always learned from her to think in the most positive way, always bring a smile and have faith. She taught me resilience and persistence.
Today I am the No. 1 Brazilian tennis player. But if it wasn’t for my family, I wouldn’t be here.
Photos courtesy of Thiago Monteiro
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When my mom adopted me, she was a single mother who had gotten divorced one year earlier. My older brother, Faber, was 15 at the time, and he was the paternal figure in our family. My mom also had a biological daughter, Flavia.
In my early years, I only focussed on one sport. I wanted to be a professional football player. Finding tennis was just a lucky coincidence. My brother was playing tennis on a court across the street from where I practised football, and that is where I hit my first balls at eight years old.
Faber was always my biggest supporter in tennis. He thought I could play really well and that I had talent. He had this dream that I would play tennis, which is funny, because he had never seen a professional player. I never really believed him when he’d compliment me.
I worked with a local coach and only played one hour every three days. Where I lived, we didn’t have the best conditions and facilities to practise. But when I was 12, I started to win small tournaments. Faber would drive me by car just to get me to bigger tournaments, whether it took six hours, 10 hours or even 16 hours. I was his younger brother, but he took care of me too. Faber treated me like his son.
One trip I remember was when I was 12, and we went by bus from Fortaleza to Aracaju. It took almost 30 hours because in the middle of the journey, our bus broke down and we had to wait five hours on the street for another one. We were in the middle of nowhere with nothing nearby to eat. I was really hungry and wishing for the next meal. It was tougher for my brother, because he was much older, and he had to take care of me and worry about what would happen. Luckily another bus came, and we continued the trip. But that was the longest one we ever did, and it was all to go to an Under-12 tournament!
I started to play against guys who trained in the morning and afternoons at big academies and I was somehow beating them. At 14, I got the opportunity to move to the south of Brazil, where I went to the academy owned by Gustavo Kuerten’s coach, Larri Passos. Guga and his brother started to be like my agents. They supported me to move, paid for my practice and my housing. Guga would even help me practise a little bit when I was 15 or 16. He was No. 1 in the world! That was the guy I wanted to be in tennis, so that helped my confidence a lot when I was a junior.
But it wasn’t always easy. There were a lot of great young players and even pros there, and it was like a whole different world from where I grew up. Everyone was doing physical training, recovery and tennis practice every day. I wasn’t used to that intensity.
Just a few months after I moved away from home, I was ready to quit. From all the practice to spending all that time away from my family, I was burnt out at 15 years old. I told Larri I wasn’t so good at tennis and I just wanted to go home to spend time on the beach and drink coconut water.
Larri told me that Guga thought the same thing and had the same issues. A few days later, Guga told me that the year before he won his first Roland Garros, he didn’t have sponsor support and he was about to go to the United States to try to find his way as a pro. But things started to happen and the next year he won his first Grand Slam. He taught me that tough situations come for everybody and it’s up to you to cope with the situation. It was very inspirational.
I realised that if I had a person like Guga believing in me, why would I not believe in myself? I started to grow mentally, and it really helped me through a lot of tough situations.
I eventually became the No. 2 junior in the world when I was 17. My first year as a pro, I reached No. 250, but then I struggled a little bit with injuries and I started to have doubts if I could make it to the Top 100. Again, it wasn’t easy.
One match really made a difference in my career. In February 2016, I was No. 338 and finally making my ATP Tour main draw debut in Rio de Janeiro. Of course, I got a tough draw against World No. 9 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who was the third seed. The guy was a monster on the court. I was a fan!
I wasn’t expecting to win, I just wanted to enjoy the experience. I stepped onto the court to get the most out of it I could and to see how far I was from the great players. It rained on Tuesday night and it was moved to Wednesday afternoon when it was very, very hot. I like these conditions because I come from the north of Brazil where it’s 30 degrees all the time. I was used to the warmth and tough conditions. I somehow won in three sets and I remember falling to the court thinking everything was worth it.
I was thinking about my mom and my brother, how excited they’d be. It was a relief. That moment changed my mind. I realised I could make it. I thought to myself, ‘Let’s do this. Let’s work the best I can every single day.’
Photo credit: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
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Since then, I’ve made two ATP Tour semi-finals, climbed as high as World No. 74 and gotten to travel around the world to compete against the best players in the world. It’s unbelievable. I’m just a boy who loved football and picked up tennis by coincidence. I barely played compared to other kids my age, but somehow, I’m here.
Of course, I want to keep going and chasing more goals. But I’m happy that because of my success, I’ve been able to help my family.
Last year, my mom started talking about how she has lived in the same house for 30 years and has been getting tired of it. She was not asking for anything, but I realised she needed a better place. Mom deserved to be in a home of her dreams.
My brother is a realtor now, so we found a really good property and took her on a walk there. She was amazed with it because there are lakes and trees, and she loves that. After a few weeks, we bought the land and started to work on it. It will take two or three years to get it ready, but my mom is excited that she has something to smile about and look forward to. It’s a way for me to pay her back for everything she has done and continues to do for me.
Doing something like that is part of what motivates me today. When I’m on the court, I’m not just playing for myself. I have extra energy to try to do amazing things for my family.
I’m not just a boy who came to them from a bird’s mouth. I’m a Monteiro. My family has given me everything. The least I could do is try my best to return the favour.
– As told to Andrew Eichenholz