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NEWS

The Wheel Thing

October 29, 2013 02:13 PM
Nic, Natasha and Tristan Puehse (left to right).
The doubles and singles titles are coming for Tristan and Nic Puehse.

By Erin Bruehl, USTA.com

Nic and Tristan Puehse were bona fide international stars at an age when most kids spend their days learning fractions and long division.

The twins from Northern California were skateboarding prodigies from the age of 6, earning sponsorships from Gatorade, Sony and Nike, signing the latter deal before turning 8. Their skateboarding prowess and daredevil tricks made them YouTube sensations, registering more than 13.5 million views. They starred in their own feature film on Showtime and were featured in some of the world’s biggest media outlets including The New York Times, CNN, “World Evening News with Katie Couric” and the “Ellen DeGeneres Show.”

In short, their talent had them on the fast track to the X Games and made them celebrities, with a legion of fans bombarding them with autograph requests at various skating parks.

Then they walked away from it all, trading their boards for racquets and ramps for courts.

In August 2011, Nic and Tristan made the shocking decision to stop skateboarding and instead focus on training to become professional tennis players. Despite their talent and success, after six years of skateboarding, their hearts and heads were no longer devoted to that sport.

The decision surprised their many sponsors and fans—as well as their parents. It was a radical decision, as the two had never even played tennis, never followed tennis or even watched the sport until borrowing racquets to hit some balls during some downtime on a trip to Arizona to shoot a skateboarding video.

The twins agreed that their experiment with tennis would be a six-month trial, a chance to devote themselves fully to the sport just to see how it went. They loved it. In fact, they enjoyed playing so much that they didn’t even realize when that self-imposed trial period was up. Now 15, the boys have rarely looked back, nor ever questioned whether they made the right decision.

“Nic and I were getting a little bored because we had been doing skateboarding for six years; we wanted to try something else,” Tristan said. “We started talking, said we would stop for six months and try a new sport, which happened to be tennis, and we have never gone back.  It’s like in the beginning of skateboarding, we fell in love with tennis and that’s all we wanted to do.”

After their first-ever hit with borrowed racquets, they returned home and started playing regularly at a local club. The more they played, they more they enjoyed it, drawing support from their friends and family—despite some initial reluctance from their parents.

“They were shocked and they were telling us what we were giving up,” Nic said of the first conversation he and Tristan had with their parents, Michael and Caryn. “They didn’t want us to regret it later. But when we said we wanted to try tennis, they let us do it and motivated and supported us anyway.”

Their younger sister, Natasha, now 12, began playing tennis at the same time. To support their kids’ new endeavor, Michael and Caryn moved the family first to Hilton Head, S.C., where the boys received a partial sponsorship from the Van der Meer Tennis Academy, and then to Carefree, Ariz., where they now train at North Scottsdale Tennis Academy with head director Chris Cummings and former Australian Open doubles champion Laurie Warder.

Committing to Tennis

For the twins, it was a lot of change in a short amount of time. And that was just off the court. The discipline required for the two sports also is very different. Skateboarding consists of 30-second tricks in competition, with no coaches and no opponents on the other side to derail what you are doing. Tennis matches, on the other hand, went hours and required demanding training and physical fitness regimes as well as a different mindset. Nic and Tristan were no longer competing against themselves but having to adapt to what their opponents were doing as well.

Of course, many skills translated. Points in tennis, like skateboarding, occur in short bursts, and the ability to think creatively and adjust on the fly are invaluable in both sports.

“The biggest thing they needed were matches,” Cummings said. “They work out together so much and that’s a good and bad thing. [But] their points are coming quickly now. We’re mixing it up, dealing with different players, different ages. That way no matter what situation, they can adapt to it.”

As fraternal twins, with Tristan a righty and Nic a lefty, the two naturally started playing doubles as well as singles. Their inspiration comes from another pair of lefty-righty California twins, the world No. 1 doubles team of Bob and Mike Bryan, whom they have met and who provide the boys with encouragement.

Nic and Tristan were ballpersons for the Sacramento Capitals of World TeamTennis one summer, and their father met Bob and Mike’s father, Wayne Bryan, and two began talking about their twin tennis players. They later met Bob and Mike at an exhibition in Atlanta. They had already sent the twins autographs and watched their skateboarding videos. In person, they offered some great advice, which has come to define Bob and Mike’s outstanding career.

“Be a good skateboarder or tennis player, but be a great person,” Tristan recalled the Bryans telling them.

Since then Nic and Tristan receive congratulatory and supportive messages from Bob and Mike periodically on Twitter.

The Puehse boys quickly discovered that succeeding on court would need to walk hand-in-hand with maintain their composure. They earned the nickname “Team Apocalypse” from their coaches at Van Der Meer for their on-court antics.  In their first doubles match, the two blew a large lead after having a verbal altercation, and since then, their harmony on the court has been a work in progress.

Nic and Tristan have come a long way since, using their bond as twins to their advantage, and remembering a lot of the success they had in skateboarding was from pushing and supporting each other. Cummings has also been working with them on being as positive as possible with each other on the court, in their energy, body language and in talking to each other. They also still work occasionally with a sports psychologist.

They also knew that by starting at age 13, they had a lot of ground to make up on kids their own age. Their peers were already competing in USTA 14-and-under tournaments, and they were just learning. They also quickly discovered the change in lifestyle that came with the transition from tail slides to topspin.

“When we were younger, I don’t think we really understood,” Tristan said of how their fame was unusual at a young age. “We had people coming to skate parks asking for autographs. We didn’t think it was normal but we didn’t understand the full grasp of why people were coming up to us. As we were getting older, both of us realized how many people knew us.”

They had a moment in the family car at one point, on the way to a tournament, when Nic reminded them all where they could have been instead : “X-Games in Barcelona on ESPN or this Level 3 tournament."

Everyone laughed because they knew they had chosen the correct path.

“I saw the passion in their eyes from the first minute,” said Michael, the twins’ dad, of their first foray into tennis. “It was refreshing, because with skateboarding, I saw them still enjoying it but didn’t see the real excitement. I can honestly say I’ve never seen them work harder in a sport or in skateboarding as they do now. It is pretty inspiring to see their commitment.”

Cummings, their coach, knew nothing of the twins’ back story when he first saw them entered in a local tournament. In a small town, he knew most of the kids who played tennis and called around asking who knew them, as he had a bunch of other juniors training with him and thought a few different players could be really beneficial for them. Months later, what has impressed Cummings most is the twins’ dedication to the sport.

“They’re still hungry,” he said. “They started late enough that they still have that hunger to learn and grow. They’re getting bigger and stronger. They are going to start to play more National events and are going to qualify for more events now that their rankings are catching up. We’re going to get there. This year is going to be a good challenge for them. It will be a good growing year, the competition will be stiffer. We’re going to test them and they’re going to have to push hard.”

Net Results

Now, that hard work is paying off. Their doubles and singles games alike continue to improve and they’re starting to win more and more tournaments, with Tristan playing the ad side and Nic playing the deuce court, similar to the Bryans. They have played each other in three singles finals, with Nic having a 2-1 advantage, to win the Southwest Closed and Flagstaff Aces Grand Slam and Tristan winning the Desert Highlands Grass & Clay Championships. In doubles recently, they won in Flagstaff and also won the back draw of the Arizona Open, competing against players of all ages, while Tristan also won the singles back draw.

Tristan recently had a growth spurt and is a good three or four inches taller than Nic at 5-foot-11. He has a power serve and likes to hit with pace while Nic likes to mix things up more, keeping opponents off balance with a variety of spins and slices. Their sister’s game has also improved. The boys nicknamed her “Tashapova” for her power, and Natasha now frequently plays up in 16-and-under tournaments.

The change of sports did not come completely without second thoughts, but they are steadfastly set on a future in tennis. Tristan has gone skateboarding just once in the two years, and while Nic initially had a few more questions and was affected more by the loss of the spotlight, a couple trips out on his board since have wiped away any lingering doubts.

“Now I have my mind totally made up and am very committed to tennis, and I am willing work as hard as I can to make the pros,” Nic said. “I thought about it once, I tried it again one day at the skate park and tried it for a third time, maybe five months after. But after that, I was done.”

“When Nic showed me a video of someone skateboarding, it gave me a relapse and I think about it, ‘Am I making the right decision?’” Tristan added of the first few months into tennis. “I’m like the cool thing now, when I watch the videos, it doesn’t make me want to go back to skateboarding. I am totally committed to tennis.”

***

For more on getting kids into the game, and to find a youth tennis program and facility near you, please visit YouthTennis.com.

***

 

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