By Shelby Baron, Special to USTA.com
During the last week of January, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend the 2012 Cruyff Foundation Junior Masters in Tarbes, France. The wheelchair tournament hosted eight boys and four girls to compete. The delegation from the US included Ryan Nelson from Utah, my coach Mimi Kennell and myself.
The event commenced with a three-day high performance training camp prior to the tournament. I arrived in Tarbes on Sunday afternoon and began training on Monday. I was focused on practicing hard so I could perform at my peak during the tournament. That day I met my competitors Angelica Bernal (Columbia), Lauren Jones (Great Britain), and Busra Un (Turkey). I was excited to have the opportunity to hit with the other junior players at the camp. The boys included Carlos Anker (Netherlands), Shepherd Banda (Zimbabwe), Rody de Bie (Netherlands), Alfie Hewett (Great Britain), Augustin Ledesma (Argentina), Marco Sousa (Brazil), and Jeroen Staman (Netherlands).
For the next two days we trained while adjusting to the cool weather and the change in altitude. On Tuesday night, we attended the opening ceremony and the players were greeted by the mayor of Tarbes. On Wednesday, the draws were unveiled and the round robin matches officially began Thursday morning.
My opening match was challenging as I took the defending champion, Angelica Bernal from Columbia, to three sets but lost with a score of 6-4, 0-6, 1-6. I started off strong, but lost some intensity while my opponent continued to step up her game. I was unable to pull through with a second set and ended up making too many unforced errors.
I did not let my first match loss discourage me. I refocused and won my next two matches. My second match was against the number 1 seed: Busra Un from Turkey. My score was 6-0, 6-0. I played with confidence, remained calm, and got every ball over the net. I then went on to play Lauren Jones from Great Britain. My score was 6-0, 6-1. The confidence I gained from my previous match helped; I made very little unforced errors and concentrated on playing my opponent's weaknesses.
Saturday afternoon I teamed up with Busra Un to play doubles against Bernal and Jones. Our match was exciting and our final score was 3-6, 6-1, 14-12, after saving 5 match points in the third set tiebreaker.
At the conclusion of the round robin matches, I qualified for the finals and a re-match against Angelica Bernal. I was a little nervous because I had never played in front of so many people before—there must have been about 100 spectators that morning. We went to at least ten deuces, but I didn't win the points that mattered because my nerves did not allow me to relax until the last couple of games. My final score was 1-6, 2-6. I was too hesitant and kept on thinking about the score and the end of the match. I especially started to panic after I lost the first set, and I no longer hit the ball with pace and eventually everything fell into the net. Next time I play Angelica, I know that I need to start off strong in my match and play my game. I cannot worry about what my opponent can do to me.
I played well during the tournament and placed second in singles and first in doubles. I benefited greatly by attending the tournament by watching superior tennis that was played by both wheelchair and able-bodied players. This experience has taught me that if I train harder, I'm not far off from competing at a higher high level. Near the end of the tournament I started to doubt my shots, but that wasn't the problem. I just needed to think more about placing my ball in a smarter position that would make my opponent uncomfortable instead of me. It was not all about the tennis, though, and there are unforgettable memories and endearing relationships that were created off the court with the other players and their coaches that will stay with me for a long time.