Midway, Texas high school student Isaac Grantham always had a love and talent for tennis, playing four years on his varsity team. But Isaac was unable to travel to USTA matches, typically the route talented players take to get the attention of colleges. This season, his coach Troy Simonek introduced UTR to their section with all high school matches counting for Verified UTR. Now, Isaac is heading off to Ottawa College in Kansas with a full scholarship to play for this NAIA college team. Here's his story.
UTR: When did you start playing tennis? How did you become interested in the sport?
Isaac Grantham: My story is kind of a rollercoaster. I first started in second grade with Coach Luedtke, my coach from elementary school. He was the head Women’s Tennis Coach at Baylor, and he’s the guy that got me into tennis. On Mondays after school, I remember he would take me to the courts at Midway High School, which is where I met Coach Simonek. I started tennis at a young age, and I eventually got burned out, so I took a few years off to focus on middle school, grades, and cross country. I moved to Midway freshman year and talked to Coach Simonek. I tried out for and made the varsity tennis team. Ever since I made the team, Coach Simonek has helped me to find the motivation and love for tennis that I kind of lost. Because of tennis, I feel like I have a second family and something to look forward to every day. It gives me some variety in my life.
When did you know that you wanted to pursue tennis? And did you expect it could help pave a path to college?
I wasn’t really sure that I wanted to pursue tennis until I met Coach Enge, head coach at Ottawa University. When Coach Simonek knew he was coming down to Waco, he introduced us. After I spoke with my family about it, and spoke more in depth with Coach Enge, I decided I wanted to continue playing through college. He said he was interested in me and liked my style, and knew we could improve together. Those words were awesome to hear. So I headed up to Kansas, looked at the campus, shook hands with the president of the college, and it was very memorable. I fell in love with the team and their great values, and I remember that as Coach Enge spoke about himself and his values, he seemed like he had my best intentions in mind, not just winning matches.
What were some of the challenges you experienced playing in high school?
I didn’t do USTA tournaments because of my work schedule at HEB. Schoolwork and Varsity tennis during the week and my work schedule during the weekends left little time for tournaments.
Coach Simonek is really good at setting up tournaments for the high school team. We will do overnight tournaments where we go to San Antonio and other places with higher-level competition than our district. I got to see and play different kinds of players and was able to play up, which really helped my game.
That’s what I love about tennis. In track, everyone runs kind of the same and the one who runs faster wins, but in tennis, everyone has a different style and strategy. Playing the same people all the time isn’t beneficial in the long run, but playing different kinds of people is. It has definitely improved my game and I think it is a real value for all players as well.
When did you learn about UTR, and what are some things that you enjoy about UTR?
I heard about UTR from Coach Simonek and my dad. My dad has the premium version of UTR and he likes being able to follow how I’m doing during a tournament. It’s really cool to be able to see the competition and see who I may be matched up against. For example, if I know my opponent is rated lower than me, I should be able to take care of it, and pick it up in the next round. Something else I enjoy about UTR is that it logs matches, so sometimes I can see if my opponent has played someone in common with me in their past. This way I can possibly get an idea of who this player is and begin to form a strategy to beat him. Basically, it’s just cool to be able to research the competition. Also, I like UTR because UTR gives you an easy goal, since it’s a number. That number means a lot and that’s something to work for.
Have you played people with a lower UTR than you? What was that experience like?
I have had experiences with playing people beneath me, and they are not my favorite. When I play people with a lower UTR, I go in thinking it will be easy and then I end up shanking balls and getting behind and it’s a huge mess! There’s not a downside to playing someone lower than you, if you know you’re better than them then get out on the court and take care of business. If there’s someone that has a lower UTR than you do, maybe try to use that match to work on something, like improving your backhand, and prepare for your next match. That’s something you can definitely use to your advantage. It can be frustrating to play someone below you and lose a couple games because you worry about it bringing down your rating, but in the long run it’s on you. Treat every match with the same intensity and take care of business.
Did you play in UTR events? What was your experience like there?
It’s been a while since I played any outside of school tournaments, but the ones I have played recently are UTR tournaments that Coach Simonek ran here in Waco. UTR brings in a lot of players so that you can play different people, and I always like the opportunity to play different styles than I normally play because it improves my game. In Waco, I’ve played most of the good players so it’s great to have the chance to play people outside of my normal circle and that is definitely something I appreciate and enjoy. Also, the sportsmanship shown by the players was notable, and I can always appreciate that.
Do you think that players who play on a high school team are evaluated by colleges differently than those who play in USTA events? What are some of the reasons why talented players might not play in these events?
Well, there are quite a few kids that came from Midway and went to play in college, so I suppose coaches aren’t completely blind to high school talent. I don’t know how closely coaches look at High School players, but I know Coach Simonek definitely makes an effort to talk to college coaches... I mean, he’s the one that spoke with Coach Enge and had him come to watch me. I don’t know if it’s an even playing field (between HS Tennis & USTA juniors) but honestly I don’t know if it should be. I guess the majority of kids who take the time to play in tournaments show they have the determination and full focus to go and compete, and the majority of those who don’t play don’t have the same determination... I think colleges should pay attention to that. However, there are always exceptions like myself.
What differences, if any, are there between these types of events? What advice would you have for high schoolers who are in a similar situation that you were in?
Honestly, high school and USTA or UTR tournaments are very similar. At the higher levels, like regionals and state, high school tournaments are full of energy and passion, even more so than in some USTA or UTR tournaments. I guess the difference is that in one you are not just representing yourself but your school, teammates, and coach. The support that the teams show at high school tournaments is incredible, and I love it. Although I have not played in many, I have never experienced a USTA or UTR tournament as fun as high school ones.
As far as advice, I met Coach Enge which was really great, but at that point, I wasn’t dead set on Ottawa. I was still interested in college tennis so I emailed other coaches at other schools. I believe college coaches understand situations like mine: “he works, he’s in extracurriculars, he doesn’t have the time to play in some of these tournaments like other kids…” So I sent coaches emails and explained my situation. I told them how I play kids on my team who are a certain UTR level and beat them, and I give them examples of the type of player I am and my style. I think that reaching out to coaches is very important. Unfortunately, people who don’t play in a lot of tournaments maybe don’t have the eyes of coaches on them, so if you really want it, then you need to make the effort to show it. That’s what I did and I had several coaches who were interested in me and wanted to see what I could do.
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