Cayman players prepare for Jr Orange Bowl Tennis Championships

14-year-old Jake Booker is excited about the challenge (photos: Martin Wilkinson)

Top young tennis players from all over the world will head to the Junior Orange Bowl International Tennis Championships in Florida this December. Among the more than 1,000 youngsters will be at least four from Cayman, the largest number the island has sent to this tough contest.

Held in Plantation, Florida, the Junior Orange Bowl is for 12&U and 14&U players. Jimmy Connors, Chris Evert, Bernard Tomic, Madison Keys and Andy Murray are among past winners.

Flying up to the clay courts at Plantation in December will be Cayman’s Willow Wilkinson, Jake Booker, Oskar Bjuroe and Jakub Neveril. They qualified for the tournament by being either the No.1- or No.2-ranked player in their age groups in Cayman. Susan Lindsay, the head of the Tennis Federation of the Cayman Islands (TFCI), said it should be an eye-opening experience for the players.

Panav Jha has played for the Canadian national team.

Helping prepare Booker, Bjuroe and Neveril for this high-powered competition is Caymanian Panav Jha, who grew up in Grand Cayman and was himself talented-spotted aged 14 at the Orange Bowl, and whisked away to train in Canada. There, he became one of the country’s highest-ranked players and joined the Canadian national team. Jha, 26, is here in Cayman on a short break from his medical studies, heading back to the US in early November.

The group – joined by Lauren Fullerton, another leading junior — has been training for 1.5 hours, six days a week, and paying “a rate we’ve made affordable to parents,” said Jha.

He brings to bear his experience of international junior tournaments in these intense training sessions. “Cayman is isolated, from a tennis perspective, and the kids here just don’t known how hard they need to train,” he stressed.

“Elsewhere, four hours’ daily training on court for juniors is standard, on top of their school day.” He hoped his tough training regime would “allow them to go and see, but not be afraid of, that competitive tennis world. I hope to give them the confidence to see they could be part of that.”

Jakub Neveril

At 12, Neveril is the youngest member of Jha’s squad, which trains at the Cayman Islands Tennis Club (CITC) in South Sound. Neveril’s consistently proved himself the top player in his age group over the past four years in PwC-sponsored on-island junior tournaments. Plus, he’s competed in Jamaica, New York and the Czech Republic. One day, he’d like to be a pro player. He’s “a little intimidated” going to the Orange Bowl, he admitted. Neveril, who will be competing in the 12&U division, will be the youngest-ever Cayman player to go to the Orange Bowl.

Cayman Prep student Jake Booker, 14, is the PwC no.1-ranked player in his age group in Cayman, with the CITC’s Ilian Nachev as his chief coach since he took up the game four years ago. “I’m not too nervous, I’m excited to go,” Booker said of the Orange Bowl. The long hours of intensive training with Jha had been good, he added. “It’s a lot, but it’s helpful, for sure. There’s a big concentration on fitness – a lot more than we’ve ever had before.”

Oskar Bjuroe, 14, loves “the variability of tennis: how different every point can be”. His biggest tennis influence has been Dale Avery, a former coach at CITC. Booker is his chief rival, and this year his ambition is to beat him in the PwC Masters’ finals in November.

“I’ve come second two years in a row,” he explained. Twice in recent PwC tournaments he came back from being 0-4 down and won the set. “That showed me that anything is possible if you put your mind to it.” He’s enjoying the training with Jha, noting: “It was tough in the beginning, because I wasn’t that fit, but I’ve got a lot fitter. That’ll benefit me at the Orange Bowl, and should also help next February when I’m doing a charity kitesurf from Little Cayman to Grand Cayman.”

Oskar Bjuroe believes anything is possible.

CITC coaches Nachev and Yana Koroleva, and Dale Avery, are among those who have helped 14-year-old Willow Wilkinson emerge as a top Cayman junior. She started playing aged 8, has made her way up the ranks, finally winning her first PwC tournament in January this year. She has competed overseas numerous times, and was proud to beat an 18-year-old in a US college-level competition this summer.

“That was stand-out for me, because it gave me a feeling of belief and belonging,” she stated. Wilkinson is excited to be going to the Orange Bowl: “It should be fun! And I think it’ll be good to play in one of the biggest tournaments and get to play against different girls.” She is training independently from the Jha group, as its schedule conflicting with her commitments to her long-term coaches.

Willow Wilkinson

Fullerton, 15, who has been a finalist and champion in several overseas junior as well as local competitions, is enthusiastic about Jha’s coaching. “Panav is a really good coach, he has really helped me understand more about tennis because before I just kind of played and did whatever,” she said. “Panav gives us specific things to work on and doesn’t care if we don’t get it right away, as long as we are giving 100% effort in every practice. He is really encouraging and motivates me to do my best.”

Jha congratulated the TFCI on its development of junior tennis over the past 10 years. In his early teens, he noted, he used to play with Cameron Stafford, but then Stafford switched to squash, and he had no-one of his age to play with, and there were no junior tournaments. “Now Cayman has such a good foundation,” he added.

Lauren Fullerton

“There’s no lack of anything. There are regular junior tournaments, good coaching and plenty of players. These kids should be going to college on tennis scholarships.”

Added the TFCI’s Susan Lindsay: “That we have four juniors going to the Junior Orange Bowl shows just how far junior tennis has developed in the past few years. The number of Cayman juniors competing overseas is at an all-time high, and reflects a growing confidence in their talent and level of play.”

The TFCI supports juniors through: free weekly coaching for top players in each age group; fundraising for overseas travel to tournaments; staging seven junior singles tournaments a year sponsored by PwC, plus some doubles competitions; sharing knowledge and experience of junior training and competition to support players as they try to maximize their talents and opportunities.

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