Sunday, March 15, 2015

Wil Spencer is giving this a shot

He claims not to remember beating the #6 player in the world which - okay, I can understand that. He’s played a lot of matches in his life, and just because the name RAONIC, Milos (CAN) stands out at us today is no reason such a name would have necessarily registered at the time, in the juniors.

The time was October 2007. The player - who that fall also recorded wins over players such as Vasek Pospisil, Chase Buchanan, and Jarmere Jenkins - is now ranked #846, well below his erstwhile foes.

His name is Wil Spencer, and he hopes to face those guys again, in the pros.

The journey to #846 has been a bit unconventional; there have been a lot of chapters in his relatively short novel.

The latest chapter opened in Weston, Florida - a nine-hour drive within the same state (quite a long state it is) from where he grew up on the same green clay . He was playing in the qualifying of the $10K Futures event, the lowest rung on the professional tennis ladder.

Now, these South Florida Futures events have gigantic qualifying draws. In fact there are as many men in the qualifying draws of these as there are in the main draw of the most populated tournaments in the world (the Slams). 128 guys signed up to play the Weston qualifying draw, from Macedonia and Zimbabwe and Peru, mostly Americans though; mostly teenagers but some well into their 20s. Some college guys. Some explosive juniors who will clearly not be at this level for long. Veterans returning from layoffs. Some guys who have never held an ATP ranking. 

Spencer was the #6 seed. 8 guys get in, and so the top 8 seeds are, generally, the best bets to make the main draw. And if you're Spencer, you might be inclined to think, “Hey, I’m a Top 8 seed facing a guy without a ranking, how tough can it be?” But of course you know better, as you were that guy-without-a-ranking a mere two months prior. Some of these guys are real good and hungry. Every match you play is another opportunity for a defeat. And you know you have to win four matches - or avoid four defeats - to even have a SHOT at a single, golden ranking point.

Here’s how it went for Spencer:

USA F5: #6 seed, won his first three matches without breaking a sweat* but then ran into a most difficult opponent, 6’11”-at-17-years-old Reilly Opelka, in the final qualifying round. Spencer lost in straight sets. Record for 2015: 3-1. Total prize money: $0. Points: 0.

USA F6: Four hours north along Interstate 95, Palm Coast, Florida. #5 seed and this time, only 100 guys enter the qualies draw so he gets a first round bye. Spencer breezes through, losing just 9 games in the process. In the main draw, he drew the #4 seed, a Swede ranked #363 - the first Top 400 guy he’d faced as a pro - and lost in 2 sets. 2015 record: 6-2. Total prize money: $168. Points: 0.

USA F7: Back down south in Sunrise, 128 draw full, #3 seed. 2 quick wins, but then a heartbreaking loss to former Northwestern University star Raleigh Smith, in a 3rd set tiebreak. On the plus side, he reach your first-ever pro final, in doubles, and a $180 check! 2015 record: 8-3. Total prize money: $348. Points: 0.

USA F8: Just down the road from Sunrise in Plantation. 128 draw full, #3 seed. A double bagel and 2 more wins, but then the luck of the draw: #13 seed Orlando Luz, who happens to be the #2 junior player in the known universe, and particularly good on clay (all these events are on green clay). Spencer lost the first set, took the second in a tiebreak bagel, but then fell in the 3rd. He did pick up $36 for losing first round in doubles. 2015 record: 11-4. Total prize money: $384. Points: 0.

USA F9: Back in Sunrise, 128 full draw, lowest seed of the year: #7. Two straight-set wins followed by two three setters, and back in a main draw! Opponent: #8 seed Bruno Sant’anna. Result: straight-set win for Spencer! First point of the year. Next up was American junior Dennis Uspensky, who ran away with the first set and held on for a 6-1 6-4 victory. 2015 record: 16-5. Total prize money: $556. Points: 1!

So that’s it. 5 weeks, 5 tournaments, 16 wins, $111 per week, 1 point.

“It was good,” Spencer told me, about getting that first point of the year. “I was playing well. It was hot, really humid. He was getting a little tired, I could tell that he was a little fatigued. I felt good.” Was that ranking point in his head on match point? "It was close to the forefront throughout the match. It shouldn’t be. I got so many points in a short amount of time last November, right?" (More on that in a bit.) "In November this year, I’m going to have to defend those points. If not you lose them all. You don’t want to live on yesterday’s points. I realize that getting points now is the biggest. And offsetting expenses. But the points are what’s really going to get you to the next level. They're building blocks."

He’s enjoying playing, enjoying the grind, even if he’s not immediately seeing the rewards. I asked him about the atmosphere of the first day of qualies with those huge draws.

“You sign in, there’s a bunch of dudes there. I don’t like it a whole lot - I don’t enjoy having that many people there, because I know a few of the good competition. I like when it thins down, not that many people left, it’s quieter. I like it more quiet. The level is really good especially in those particular Futures. It’s the beginning of the year, down in South Florida where it’s beautiful, it attracts a lot of people; there’s a bunch in a row so they can kind of put down roots for a little bit, get a little accustomed to that area. Once you get more comfortable, you start playing better. You get time to get used to the weather.”

And to the green clay. As mentioned, Spencer grew up on green clay, and last fall on green clay is where he played out one of the most remarkable stories in recent tennis memory. It was in Niceville, Florida, just across Choctawhatchee Bay from where he grew up in Sandestin. His boss at the club in North Carolina where he was teaching gave him a couple of weeks off, and he had decided to make a go of it as a pro, entering the wildcard tournament of USA F31.

Prior to that, he played a money tournament in North Carolina, but prior to that he hadn’t played competitively since his days as a two-time All-America at the University of Georgia. (Well, he had one match against an in-state college rival, Georgia Tech’s Kevin King, in the qualies of the 2011 Atlanta ATP event, won 4&3 by King.)

Reflecting on those two and a half years off, Spencer said, “I felt like it was the best thing to do. I wasn’t ready for pro tennis, the pieces weren’t there.”

It wasn’t his first break from competitive tennis.

A highly regarded junior (see Raonic, supra), he played Junior Davis Cup and reached the second round of the U.S. Open juniors. He signed with Texas A&M, in the same class as Austin Krajicek. He had a good couple of years there, but then tragedy struck. His dad passed away in 2009, and after finishing the season, he went back to Florida to be with his mother and sister. He taught tennis alongside Brett Beattie (who’s coaching him now) and realized he missed playing.

When he was ready, he started again at the University of Georgia, where he excelled. He played for two more years, including his senior year at the #1 spot in the line-up.

His greatest moment? In the 2011 Team NCAA quarterfinals against University of Tennessee standout J.P. Smith. The Bulldogs had lost twice to their SEC rivals that year. This time around, the teams had split the first 6 points and it all came down to Spencer and Smith. Spencer won 7-5 in the 3rd. Here’s match point:

(His next opponent was none other than Steve Johnson. Steve won that one handily.)

After his final season in 2012, Spencer stayed in Athens for a year to complete his degree in International Affairs. “I wasn’t ready emotionally for touring. My heart wasn’t in it. I just didn’t really know.” By then, his mother and sister had moved to North Carolina, so he went up there to teach at a club for 2014. He found a church he liked, and did more soul searching. And decided “Yes, I want to give it a shot.” His club gave him two weeks off; he went to Niceville; won the wildcard without dropping a set. The rest is history. An amazing history.

Seth Stringer of the Northwest Florida Daily News did an impeccable job of covering Spencer’s run in Niceville, from his miraculous first-round win over #2 seed Peter Heller to his did-that-really-happen final win over #7 seed Peter Nagy.

That gave him 18 points. He's now up to 19.

Today, March 15, 2015, Spencer is in Bakersfield, where he just … JUST missed the main draw cut-off and is the #1 seed in qualies, playing against top junior and (and, as luck would have it, University of Georgia recruit) Walker Duncan. When we talked, Spencer was planning a trip to play a couple of Australian futures. Instead, a look at the entry lists shows he’ll stay in California and play more Futures qualies.

“Qualifying is good but I want to get past it," said Spencer. "It’s not where you want to get stuck. Maybe it’s a test of your will a little bit. I want to be able to go through them, but I kind of want to be able to do it the hard way. I know those other guys are living their dream. There has to be a starting point. There has to be an entry point for everyone. I’m on the cusp of that. I had to get a break. So I played the Niceville wildcard tournament. You could say that the people I worked with in North Carolina gave me a break by giving me a break (time off). There always has to be an onramp. But I don’t want to be playing [Futures qualifying] for a long period. Who you play can affect your game. If you play good players, your game automatically gets better. It ups your game. That’s where I want to be. I was able to get back in shape [in those Florida tournaments]. Now it’s time for the next step."

Spencer hasn't given himself a timeline for his pro career, or set a ranking goal. “I’m going to see what’s going on. Get a feel for it. There will be an evaluation at the end of the year: What have I learned? Do I want to keep doing this, can I keep doing this, what can I do to improve?”

As for now, “I feel great. I’m glad I’m 25. Maturity wise, I’m more mature than last year even. I love where I’m at right now.”

He's giving this a shot.

*This is not meant to be literal, as it was South Florida and even in January it’s tough to do much of consequence without breaking a sweat.

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