Whitaker’s Improvement Includes Orange Bowl Title

By John Packett, RTA Contributing Writer

Whitaker’s Improvement Includes Orange Bowl Title

It’s been almost a year since Spencer Whitaker took up residence at the IMG/Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, FL, and his transformation on and off the court is becoming more and more evident to all those who see him.

“He’s gotten stronger,” said Pat Anderson, a Richmond teaching pro who has worked with Whitaker since he was 4. “He’s gotten bigger. They do a lot of weightlifting and stuff. That’s really helped him a lot. But the level of [players] that he plays against every day is just so good. [Former pro] Peter Korda’s son is there and [U.S. pro] Ryan Harrison is there.

“He was good. Let’s put it this way: He was ranked number one in the country when he was 14

. But now he’s going to another level. Now he’s playing with the top players in the world, not just the United States.”

Want more concrete proof? Earlier this month, Whitaker won the 16-under doubles division (with Eliot Spizzirri) at the Orange Bowl Junior Tennis Championships in Plantation, Fla., considered the most prestigious junior event in the world.

Whitaker, 16, also won two rounds in singles before losing in a close match to the No. 4 seed in the round of 16.  The eye test says that Whitaker has taken his game to a higher level, becoming more of an all-court player, during his stay at the academy.

“It’s been tremendous, the amount of improvement I’ve gone through over the year,” said Whitaker. “Maturity-wise on the court and just my overall game. They’ve really helped me to improve my fitness and my on-court mentality and my determination. I think it’s been very beneficial.”

Whitaker is taking academic classes at the academy and is a sophomore with a 4.0 GPA.

As an unseeded entry in doubles, Whitaker and Spizzirri knocked off the No. 3 seeds in the first round and eliminated the No. 6 seeds in the quarterfinals. They faced another unseeded team in the final and won 5-7, 6-3 (10-5).

“It was a close match,” said Whitaker. “The first set was a 6-5, deuce-deciding point that they won it on. So we had to keep our determination going and pull out the second set. Then we found a way to break away in the 10-point tiebreaker.

“It was a fun match to play. Winning it really meant a lot to both of us. Winning the Orange Bowl is the pinnacle of a junior career, I think, and it was kind of cool that we could both do it in doubles together.”

The first time Whitaker and Spizzirri, who was seeded second in the singles draw, played together was the Easter Bowl at Indian Wells Tennis Garden in California in late March. The American duo (Spizzirri is from Connecticut) swept unseeded through the draw.

“It was kind of funny that the first time we played with each other we won one of the biggest tournaments in the U.S.,” said Whitaker. “I think that maybe was like a little hint that we should play with each other more.

“We have a good chemistry on court,” he said. “We do a good job of pumping each other up. When we’re down, we’re good at picking each other up. We get along really well during matches. Our games complement each other very well.  He’s very good at the net.”

In singles, Whitaker battled Sebastian Rodriguez (Peru) on even terms and was up 4-2 in the third before losing 6-1, 1-6, 6-4.  “From that point {4-2] on, he definitely picked it up several notches and hit some very good shots,” said Whitaker.  

College coaches from all over the country were in attendance at the tournament, looking for talented players to add to their rosters. One of them was former Richmonder Rodney Harmon, who is the women’s tennis coach at Georgia Tech.  Harmon, a former touring pro ranked in the world’s top 50, is a past director of men’s tennis for the USTA.

Asked if Whitaker has a chance to become a successful pro one day, Harmon told Anderson, “I think so. If he can get more muscle, he will play like [David] Ferrer or [Kei] Nishikori [both highly ranked pros]. He is such a great competitor and fights for every point.” Ferrer (#37) and Nishikori (#22) both used their strength and speed to overcome their lack of size.  Whitaker is 5’7″ and weighs 150 lbs.  

For the time being, Whitaker is focused on getting better and considering which college to attend from among many potential offers.

“I’m not sure where yet,” said Whitaker, who can’t be officially recruited until his junior year. “I’m still learning about the whole college thing. I’ve still got 21/2 years of improvement to see where I get.”

Whitaker’s ultimate goal, of course, is to turn pro and earn a living on the circuit. But there’s plenty of hard work to be done first.

“It doesn’t stop with the kind of tennis I’m trying to play,” he said.  “Every day I’m trying to work towards being one of the best in the world. So every day opens new doors for improvement and challenges I need to learn.

“I’ve come very far but the road is … I’ve still got a ways to go before I’m where I would like to be. Which is the beauty of the sport. Every day, even the best in the world, they still have to learn to improve in what they need to get better at.”

A couple more years of seasoning at the academy could have Whitaker ready to take on the world.