U.S. Open junior tennis champ will be a Gator
Ryan Sweeting has Sharapova's endorsement, but he's in no hurry to turn pro.
By Charles Bricker
December 17, 2005
Rising from obscurity to win the U.S. Open junior tennis tournament in September sent Ryan Sweeting's confidence soaring, and beating Maria Sharapova a few weeks later in a practice match gave his personal wealth a nice little boost.
But nothing that has happened in the past three months of Sweeting's young life has distorted his vision of the future.
The 18-year-old, Bahamas-born resident of Fort Lauderdale is not rushing to cash in on his instant fame by turning pro. He's going to the University of Florida.
"It's not a normal thing, if you finish in the top five juniors, to go to college. But college seemed like the smartest thing to do. I need to get a little bigger and little stronger," he said, assessing what he needs to do to make an impact on the ATP Tour.
With a firm grip on reality, Sweeting now is trying to get a grip on the physical part of his game.
Ranked third in the ITF worldwide junior rankings, he had a chance to finish No. 1 at the Orange Bowl International Championships on Key Biscayne last week, but he cramped up in the third set of his opening-round match and had to retire.
Playing with Holden Seguso of Bradenton, Sweeting lost in the second round of doubles. By early January, he will officially become a Gator and a resident of Gainesville.
Before the U.S. Open, he was a virtual unknown, even among his peers. Winning a Grand Slam event changed that.
Not long after sweeping through six opponents -- and losing only one set -- in New York, Sweeting was invited to fly to San Antonio and spend a few days training with Andy Roddick, the No. 3 player in the world, and with John Roddick, his coaching brother.
It was the Roddicks, as well as famous tennis coach Nick Bollettieri and a number of other personal confidantes, who advised the slender, 6-foot-4 Sweeting to put pro tennis on hold until he is physically able to compete at the next level.
The final convincing voice was Gators coach Andy Jackson. "He was very professional about everything," Sweeting said. "He told me he's planning to make me stronger and develop my game. He wants to take me to the top."
Living in Fort Lauderdale the past six years hasn't entirely taken the beach boy out of him. He's got a sharply defined intensity on court with his big serve and strong forehand, but take the racket out of his hand and he has the look and feel of a teenager in search of a wave.
"Life here is totally different," he explained. "Everything happens quicker. I've done a pretty good job of coping, but the Bahamas still were a great place to grow up. Diving ... spearing ... I'd be in school until 3 p.m. and then have tennis from 4 to 6, and that was it.
"It was a pretty light day. On the weekends, you'd go to the beach and relax. Really, there's not much to do there except relax."
His parents split up when he was 10, and he and his older sister lived with their mother, Cindy Sweeting, who has raised the two children alone, ferrying them both back and forth to tennis practice in Weston and to tournaments around the state, while working as an executive with a Fort Lauderdale investment firm.
"There's no words to describe how great a job my mom did being both parents," Sweeting said.
"She can be tough. When I was 14 and not getting my schoolwork done, she cut me off. No money, no electronics. Sat me down in my room and made me do my schoolwork. She'll get you," he said, smiling.
Sweeting was home-schooled using an online service, just like many junior tennis players to allow for more flexible practice schedules.
He didn't have a remarkable junior career until the second half of 2005. Reaching the semifinals on grass at the pre-Wimbledon tournament at Roehampton, England, was a turning point, but he wasn't ranked high enough to get into the Australian Open, French Open or Wimbledon junior singles.
When he arrived in New York, he had zero expectations. "I actually didn't think I could win the U.S. Open until I won it," he said. "It wasn't that I didn't have confidence. I just didn't think it could happen."
Not even a quarterfinal win over No. 3 seeded Leonardo Mayer of Argentina, who had beaten him a week earlier in Canada, could get him to thinking about a Grand Slam title.
Then he swept through No. 6 Sun-Yong Kim of Korea, 6-4, 6-0, and defeated No. 7 Jeremy Chardy of France, 6-4, 6-4, in the final.
He did a pratfall on the court. His mother was crying. His coaches were crying. This was a tournament previously won by Richard Gasquet, Roddick, David Nalbandian, Marcelo Rios, Stefan Edberg and Pat Cash -- some of the best-known names in the game.
So who, many wondered, is Ryan Sweeting?
Agents from IMG, SFX and Octogon came calling. So did representatives of the Bollettieri Tennis Academy, who asked him to train there for two weeks.
While Sweeting was there, coaches arranged a practice match with Sharapova, who pulled her own surprise victory in 2004 by winning Wimbledon.
"She came on the court and I asked her if she wanted to play for money," Sweeting said. Sharapova dug $25 out of her purse. Sweeting matched it, then rolled up the $50 and wedged it into one of the holes in the net, where it stayed during the match.
It wasn't long before Sharapova was up 5-0.
"It was kind of hard to concentrate," Sweeting said. "She's very attractive. But I wasn't going down six-love. I stopped looking at her for a while and won 7-5, 6-3.
"At the net, she just said, `Too good,' with a little smile on her face. She doesn't like to lose."
No one, including Jackson, believes Sweeting is going to be in Gainesville for four years. College is going to be a way station, a place to mature. But by the time he emerges to turn pro, perhaps after just one year, he's not likely to be that obscure kid from the Bahamas anymore.
Charles Bricker can be reached at email@example.com
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