By Nicholas J. Walz, USTA.com
Wilhelm Saiga’s tennis talents, and journey to developing them, are far from ordinary. The 15-year-old stands just shy of six feet tall and is as skinny as he is tall – 135 lbs. after a sizeable Southern-style lunch – yet he’s firing some of the heaviest, most penetrating ground strokes seen this weekend at the 2013 USTA Jr. Team Tennis 18 & Under National Championships in Cayce, S.C.
“I want to take tennis as far as I can take it,” said Saiga, playing in his second Nationals. “I’m glad it’s here, this is a lot of fun. We finished 14th in 2012, but our team is stronger now. We’re ready for a higher spot, for sure.”
He’s the youngest, and in the same breath, the most seasoned player on his USTA Northern California Advanced squad representing the Burgos Tennis Foundation (BTF) from Point Richmond, Calif. Saiga has never missed a practice in his eight years playing for coach Antonio Burgos, developing an aggressive all-court game that has the NorCal crew a few wins from a national title.
Burgos, the head of BTF, currently has 40 players under his watch, but few more inspiring than the boy he calls “Willie.”
“He basically embodies what our foundation tries to do, helping kids get an education while developing a total passion for the sport,” Burgos said. “He’s the hardest working kid I’ve ever coached.”
Saiga, a four-star recruit, earned a scholarship from Burgos at the age of 7. Saiga’s older brother, Peter, now 18, first attended BTF programs while Willie tagged along. The younger Saiga was polite but painfully shy; as Burgos remembered, “he wouldn’t hardly speak.” Not long after their introduction, Willie began beating high schoolers.
“He’s so naturally athletic,” said Burgos. “This is the type of kid who recently ran in and won a middle school cross-country championship in basketball shoes.”
Lately, Saiga has been putting that distance running to good use. His mother, Sakiko, raises Willie and her four other children on her own while working to support the family. It’s a five-mile trek from their home in Belvedere Tiburon, Calif., to the courts at the BTF practice facility. Then it’s two hours with the team, perhaps longer if there’s a lesson, before he has to turn around and hoof it home.
The transportation issue was a bit easier for Saiga when he owned a bicycle, but that was stolen from him nearly two years ago. It’s yet to be replaced.
“Getting to college has always been a struggle for my family,” said Saiga. “We have five kids and one mom, so we’ve always tried to get good grades. One of my big goals is to get a scholarship so maybe I can attend a dream school like a Stanford or Cal.”
Saiga entered his freshman year at Tamiscal High School in suburban San Francisco this fall. “He’s a straight-A student,” said Burgos. “The emphasis [at BTF] has always been academics first.”
Saiga said he’s excited about staying on with his coach and his teammates for the next four years. The NorCal team won their first match of the tournament in the early morning over USTA Mid-Atlantic, 55-25, with Saiga and partner Aidan Tirpack rolling in doubles, 6-1, 6-0.
“Having success is from adjustments,” said Saiga about getting ready for the 2013 Nationals. “I was always trying to get either my serve or my net game better. If I had to hit a hundred balls, I hit a hundred balls to get it right.
That hard work has paid off with a trip to JTT Nationals and perhaps a future as a collegiate student-athlete. A few more wins this weekend, and it’ll make Saiga a national champion as well.