Dedicated to Game, Whitaker Wins National Open Tournament
By John Packett, RTA Contributing Writer
Ever since he was about two or three years old, Spencer Whitaker has loved smacking balls around.
“I actually started hitting a balloon around the house with a table-tennis paddle,” said Whitaker. “Maybe a year after that, I started hitting tennis balls over at Ridgetop with my Dad for fun to see how I liked it.”
Now 12 years old, Whitaker enjoyed the game so much that he has continued to play and become one of the best at his age in the country. He captured the U.S. Tennis Association’s National Selection Open for 12-and-unders Feb. 15-17 in Greensboro, N.C.
Whitaker was seeded second in the field of 32 and beat No. 5 seed Shawn Berdia of Potomac, Md., 6-1, 6-0 in the final. The sixth-grader at St. Michael’s School didn’t drop a set in the tournament and raised his current national ranking in the age group to No. 8.
“He would just follow me out to the neighborhood pool [Ridgetop] and we’d hit balls on the same side of the net,” said his father, Scott, who is an accomplished 4.5 player that has played on several teams around town.
“From the very beginning, he had an incredible attention span and interest. We would go out there for an hour and a half at a time, just knocking balls around. He’s always been willing to put in the work and he never goofs off in practice.
“He’s always been real focused and taken it seriously. It’s more than just determination with him.”
An example of Whitaker’s workaholic attitude came when he attended one of the USTA’s development camps last summer and received the “coachability” award as determined by all of the camp’s instructors.
“That was for being the most attentive and hardest-working kid at the camp,” said his Dad.
The younger Whitaker said his interest in tennis became even keener from watching Spanish star Rafael Nadal play on TV.
“One day I wanted to be just like him,” said Whitaker. “I like the way he fights for every ball and he really works hard.”
Whitaker has worked with three local pros, starting with Pat Anderson, then Damian Sancilio and most recently with Romain Ambert, the head pro at Westwood Racquet Club, where the Whitakers are now members.
“You can tell who’s going to be good [at an early age] and who’s not,” said Anderson. “The thing about him is he loves it but he gets it. He’s one of those kids who gets it, and to this day, he still gets it. He knows how to play tennis. You can’t teach that.
“He’s the same nice kid he was when he was eight, begging you to hit with him, that he is now. His work ethic is just unreal. It’s crazy how good the kid is. It’s not a fluke either. His father deserves a ton of the credit for how good he is.”
Added Sancilio, “The story of Spencer Whitaker is a group effort. Pat started working with him. I’ve been working with him once a week since he was five. He’s about the only kid I’ve ever taught that never had a bad lesson. He’s all in.
“Now he works with Romain at Westwood. I know he likes working with Romain. He’s not a real tall kid but he’s very fast and he’s so focused. He practices very hard. He doesn’t beat himself up in matches. He’s a very driven player.”
All of that helped him win the National Selection Open in Greensboro, where he had the added pressure of being seeded second.
“There was a lot of pressure because I’ve never been in a situation where I was supposed to get far in the draw,” said Whitaker. “I just tried to look at the draw and not worry about where my seed was. Just approach every match thinking if I don’t play my best, the other guy is going to beat me.”
Whitaker’s closest match came in the semis, where he defeated No. 4 seed Daniel Labrador of Tampa, Fla., 6-3, 6-4.
“Daniel plays the same type of game that I do, so we really had the same plan to beat each other,” he said. “It was very tough to find a way to win that match. After that, we became good friends and we’re going to play doubles later on this year.”
Whitaker’s next big national tournament could be the Easter Bowl in April in Palm Springs, Calif.
“After I won [tournament in Greensboro], I really felt that I had the confidence to say that I can really do this. That I can be at the top of the ranking list and I can beat these guys if I really want to. I hope I get to play in the Easter Bowl.”
Meanwhile, several other Richmonders made their mark at various tournaments around the country that same weekend.
In the National Selection Open boys 16-and-unders in San Antonio, Tex., William Howells ousted No. 8 seed Luke Ross in the first round 6-4, 6-1, then dropped a close second-rounder that went to 7-6 in the third.
Howells, who played No. 2 singles for Collegiate last year as an eighth-grader, is currently training at the Nick Saviano Tennis Academy in Florida this school year.
There was also a Regional Closed tournament the same weekend, involving players from the Mid-Atlantic, Middle States, Eastern and New England sections. Five local players made the trek north for those events.
Nina Sorkin reached the quarterfinals of the girls 16-and-unders in Bogota, N.J. Sorkin upset the No. 6 seed in the second round before losing to the second seed in the quarters. Sorkin is a freshman at Deep Run High School and is expected to play near the top of the Wildcats’ lineup this spring.
Chase Bernstine finished sixth overall in boys 16-under singles in Rocky Hill, Conn. He got to the quarterfinals of the main draw before losing to the second seed and feeding into the consolations. Bernstine and his partner lost in the doubles final.
Danny Polk, a senior at Hanover High School (where he plays No.1 singles) lost in the first round of the main draw and the consolations of the 18-unders but wound up third in doubles with his partner Matthew Phelps of Maryland.
In that same tournament, Bryce DePew lost in the first round of the main draw and consolations of the 16-unders.
In Port Chester, N.Y., where another Regional Closed event was held, Ryan Bernstine was beaten in the first round of the main draw but reached the consolation final in the 14-under boys. He teamed with his partner, Andrew Leung, to claim the doubles title.