Growing up as a young tennis player in Africa

I was born into a sports crazed family in the sports crazed nation of South Africa. Sport has always been my passion. My father played professional tennis in the 70s, competing on some of the biggest stages in the game – Wimbledon, Queens, Rome, as well as Davis Cup (for Rhodesia, present-day Zimbabwe). He went on to become one of the top coaches in South Africa. My mother, a dental hygienist by profession, also spent most of her life around the game and was a great player in her own right, competing in the top tier of South African tennis as a junior. So I always knew tennis was going to be a part of my life.

My dad got me started young. As soon as I could hold a racquet I was out there swinging for the fences. At every possible opportunity, I was outside with a racquet in hand. More often than not this involved me relentlessly banging tennis balls against the garage door for hours on end, much to the neighbors, and the poor garage doors, dismay. Some of my earliest memories involve me travelling around Cape Town with my father, going to various schools and tennis clinics and putting on demonstrations. I loved the game, and thankfully I seemed to be fairly good at it. With all that said, what I am most thankful for is the fact that my parents never pushed me into the game. Sure, there was a slight nudge in the direction of tennis, but it was always my choice.

This is me

This is me sitting in my dad’s tennis bag, trying to get into Men’s League undetected.



Growing up I played all sports; tennis, cricket, rugby, and hockey, just to name a few. I just loved competing. For many years I wanted to be a professional cricket player, but a part of me always knew that the tennis court was where I really belonged.

When I was 9 years old my family and I moved to Zimbabwe. My dad grew up there (known as Rhodesia at the time) and therefore his father and his entire side of the family lived there. At first it was quite an adjustment, and I was not happy about the move. I left behind the only life I knew, my best friend, my cousins, my cricket team, the ocean, and the garage door that never missed. It was a tough time in my young life. However, there were many positives that came with our move to Zimbabwe; the wide open spaces, a sport club right across the street (BAC), and probably most exciting of all, our very own grass court. What seemed so difficult at first turned out to be one the best moves we could have ever made. I had five great years in Zimbabwe, and to this day, looking back they were some of the best years of my life.

However, while I was running around, playing every local tennis tournament, cricket match, and sports event possible, the political landscape in Zimbabwe was changing, and around the year 2000 it took a turn for the worst. Though most of the time as kids we were blissfully unaware, sometimes the situation was so ridiculous that it was impossible to ignore. In the following years the government began its policy of “land redistribution.” Our farm as well as many of our friends’ farms were seized – often by violence and intimidation, inflation soared, and the overall situation was dire.

In 2002 my dad decided to move us back to South Africa. The conditions in Zimbabwe were not getting any better and it was the right time to leave. I had also managed to get a sports scholarship to one of the top high schools in Cape Town, Diocesan College (Bishops).  So, we packed our bags and headed for greener pastures.

Once there I continued to excel on the sports fields, although the competition in South Africa was much tougher and the level much higher. Cricket was my passion at that time and for the next 2 years I spent every weekend out on the field. I played tennis a few times a week for the school team but my focus was definitely on cricket.

When I turned 15 that all changed. My love for cricket was wavering, as many long hours out in the African sun and the all day Saturday matches were taking its toll on me. I needed something with a little more action and something a little faster paced, so I began getting back into my tennis. I had continued to play, but I had not been taking it seriously. There were some great junior players in Cape Town at the time and I felt like I was really behind the pack. However I caught up quickly, and within a few tournaments I felt like I was really competing with some of the best players in my area. Half way through the year I decided to go to Nationals, the biggest junior tournament in South Africa. I managed to get through qualifying and beat a top ranked player in the first round. I lost in the next round but this was a defining moment in my life. I was hooked, again.

A few days later, on the early Monday morning drive to the boarding house with my dad, I decided that tennis was what I really wanted to pursue. My passion had always been there, but this conscience decision changed everything. I started taking tennis incredibly seriously. I started focusing on my nutrition, my game, the inner game of tennis (the mind) and my movement. I started working with a physical trainer who helped me with my movement. Having had multiple growth spurts that lead to Osgood Schlatter disease (a knee condition usually caused by excessive training and/or fast growth) and general growing pains my movement was far perfect, or anything in the vicinity of fast. I had always loved tennis and I had always been determined, but the decision I made in the car on the way to school that day really kicked me into over drive. By the time I was 16 I was starting to compete with some of the top juniors in the country. By the time I was 17 I WAS one of the top juniors in the country. That extra focus and determination was really paying dividends and by the age of 16 or so tennis was all I wanted to do.

By the time my senior year of high school rolled around I was playing great tennis. I was the number 2 ranked singles player in South Africa, and the number 1 ranked doubles player. Along with my partner Keith Patrick Crowley I had the won the South African National Doubles Championships and made the Semi Finals of the singles tournament as a 17 year old. I knew tennis was what I wanted to do and I was looking for ways to take my game to the next level. My desire to take my game further took me across the world, to the United States, and to NCAA college tennis.

Training at the Advantage Tennis Academy in Irvine, CA

Training at the Advantage Tennis Academy in Irvine, CA

This background story has got a little long and out of hand so I’m going to call it there and continue on about my college tennis years in my next blog. Meanwhile, back in Irvine I’ve had a great week of training. I’ve been trying to fine tune certain parts of my game and play as many sets as possible.

I got a few practice sets in with an up in coming 17 year old from Utah, Sam Tullis, and they went really well. There are definitely some parts of my game that need tightening up but that will come with more match practice and many more practice sets. Looking forward to getting after it again tomorrow.

 

Talk to you soon,

Matt

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