Better late than never.
Roger Federer Practices with NE Junior
By Deb Weinreich
Most young athletes dream of competing against their idols – going one-on-one with Michael Jordan, catching a touchdown pass from Tom Brady or firing a 95 mile an hour fastball to Big Papi.
But just as the fastball heads towards the plate, the alarm goes off. You leap out of bed and realize you are in your bedroom - far from Fenway Park. The sound you hear from the crack of Big Papi’s bat and the roar of the crowd is blaring from the television - SportsCenter highlights. The dream is over.
So excuse Jared Donaldson if he had to pinch himself to make sure he wasn’t dreaming when he recently found himself standing on a tennis court in Dubai - opposite his longtime idol - Roger Federer.
Jared wasn’t chosen as a random contest winner. He wasn’t pulled from the stands to pose for a picture with Federer. This was not a “meet and greet.”
The 17 year-old Rhode Island native, who finished runner up at the 2013 USTA Boys 18s National Championships at the age of 16, was invited to train with Roger Federer, winner of 17 Grand Slam singles championships.
“I was very excited considering Jared puts so much time into tennis. I thought, what a great opportunity USTA has given us...what a great learning tool to help Jared with his goals,” said Jared’s dad, Courtney.
So Jared embraced the opportunity and with his coach, former touring pro Taylor Dent, boarded the plane for a 14- plus hour flight to Dubai, a scorching desert where Federer often invites top level juniors to train with him each January in preparation for heat of the Australian Open.
“A lot of people meet their idol, but this was much more. I was going to train with the greatest player in the world,” said Jared. “I was going to be part of his training as much as he was going to part of my training. That was what made it so special.”
Excited, honored and eager, Jared had just one concern.
“I didn’t want to screw up his practice,” he said. “I know when I train with someone I want the practice to be as beneficial to me as it is for the person I’m hitting with.”
The concern - and nerves - began to subside as soon as Jared started to hit with Federer on the practice court in Dubai.
“Once we started practicing that first day, it was fine,” said Jared. “I gained more confidence in myself each day because I was doing better than how I had thought I was going to do.”
Like a sponge, Donaldson soaked up his experience - learning as much about Federer as he could - both on and off the court.
“My goal going in was to improve as as a player. I definitely did that. I wanted to know what he goes through as a player. Even though he’s the greatest player in the world, I learned he is just trying to improve, trying to find that solution that makes him better and gives him the edge - just like everyone else.
“He treated the training sessions like a match...like it was the finals of the US Open or Wimbledon. His intensity was same way even though he was just practicing. It was a match setting even though he was working on things. The way you see him in the US Open is the way he is during practice. Intense.”
“Watching my son hit with Roger was an incredible experience,” said Courtney. “From a practical standpoint, Jared got to see one of the best forehands there ever was in tennis and to be able to play against it and get that feel from a development standpoint- to learn first-hand how he works and trains - was just a great opportunity.”
Dent, formerly ranked No. 21 in the world, worked with Jared for several weeks in Southern California leading up to the trip to Dubai.
“When Jared first came to me and my father (Phil Dent) to train, we were both saying that his ball quality - the heaviness of his ball - was pro quality. He needs to work on his serve and we are working on that. Junior tennis is different than professional tennis. Jared was able to experience that difference first hand training with Roger. (Training with Roger) was just an affirmation of what we are trying to do with his game.”
Dent, who retired from tennis just three years ago, refers to himself as a “cheater.”
“I played Roger my last year on the tour, so I have that experience. It’s fresh. I don’t have to guess what Roger and players like him are doing. I know first-hand.”
And now Jared knows, too.
“The biggest thing I took away from training with Roger was the placement of his shot. Most striking was how big and how heavy his ball is. But the thing that people most overlook in tennis is his shot placement...how he was able to put the ball literally anywhere he wants. It’s definitely something I am working on.”
Jared was equally impressed with Federer off the court. “He’s just a genuinely nice and sincere person. He never acted like he was superior. He’s a dad who loves his kids and works hard.”
Federer, the top earner in tennis, was more than willing to share his experience as a junior early on in his career.
“He talked about his own career at 17-18. He talked about training and working through the lower levels tournaments,” said Jared. “He talked about ups and downs you face as a player - even now what he goes through. It was really beneficial to hear what he had to say. He’s working to find solutions to areas in which he wants to continue to improve - just like we all are.”
Jared has taken what he learned from the world’s best player back onto the court - this time in Southern California where he is training rigorously with Dent.
“Jared always gets to balls. He’s extremely tough to hit winners on. He has great anticipation and movement on the court. He really does hit a pro quality ball. Of course there are areas he needs to improve upon, but he is more than willing to do the work. He WANTS to get better every single day he’s on the court.”
Both Dent and Donaldson have set simple goals for 2014 - just to work hard and continue to improve.
“If he’s willing to do the work and talented enough to make changes - which he is - I don’t see what’s going to hold him back,” said Dent.
“My goal is to improve as a player and person...to continue to figure out my game. Too many players get caught up in results and ranking. I’m still young, I still need to work on my game so I can hopefully one day play at that (professional) level.”