Daniel Phillips making a run at the professional ranks
Not since Steve Alger in the 1980s has Bermuda produced a tennis player with genuine hopes of making a mark on the professional game. Daniel Phillips is hoping to change that.
The 17-year-old, fresh off triple title success on the International Tennis Federation Junior Circuit, has put on hold thoughts of attending college or university so that he may realise a lifelong dream of joining the paid ranks.
While some may consider this to be ambitious in the extreme, Phillips has been on an 11-year journey to this point, with sojourns taking him to the world-famous Rafael Nadal Tennis Academy in Spain, to England and to his present base in Delray Beach, Florida — and the timing to take this plunge and bet on himself seems just about right.
“The plan that we've made is to facilitate me to go pro,” Phillips told The Royal Gazette while in Bermuda on a short break from the junior circuit. “Now I'm playing ITF juniors, if I get into the top 100, I’ll be able to get junior wild cards or exclusions into Futures tournaments, which then leads to pro points and money tournaments. These will then generate me from Futures to Challengers, then to the ATP circuit.
“Turning pro puts me among everyone, but the thing is if I stay in the junior circuit for my next two years, keep getting my ranking higher, keep playing these good tournaments, hopefully I'll get to the top 100, top 50, get these wild cards, which then allow me to play in the main draw of these pro tournaments and not have to go through qualifying.”
Competition is intense with hundreds of youngsters around the world plotting a similar paths, while others — especially those linked to US colleges and universities — playing the “long game” with a view to hitting the circuit after getting their degrees.
“I saw all across the Central America, they are taking this approach to getting juniors getting as high a ranking possible to get these wild cards, and try and play the pro circuit,” Phillips explained. “But I've seen more of kids wanting to go to college and university and take that route. That route's fine, but for us, I think always the angle has been look at pro first.
“The talk about university has been that it's always there if pro doesn't work out or if I'm just wanting to try something new with my life; university will always be there.”
The evidence of his progress thus far has been encouraging, with victories at the J4 tournaments in Guatemala and Puerto Rico — having had to play through three rounds of qualifying in the former. He also won the doubles on the clay courts of Llanos de Curundu, in Panama, in partnership with Sasha Rozin, of Canada, after losing in three sets to the ultimate winner in the singles quarter-finals.
It is a run that has put on Phillips’s world junior ranking on a fast track through only eight tournaments — from No 579 entering the year to a career-best of No 329 on March 28. He has since slipped to No 336 after withdrawing from the J3 Cancún event in Mexico to prioritise rest after a busy stretch.
“It was an intense period,” he said of the decision to bypass Cancún. “Body-wise, I had to do a lot of stretching, recovery, relaxation, had to get my mind back. And my main thing was not to push myself too far off the bat, and kind of convince myself that I don't need to do this all at one time. Choose the right tournament, choose the right moments and wait until I feel the best I can.”
Now back in training in Florida under the watchful gaze of coaches Chris Begg and Shariq Khan, the 6ft 2in baseliner is targeting a J3 tournament in Delray Beach for his return to action, starting on April 25.
Such is the relentless nature of the junior circuit, more than 50 tournaments worldwide would have started and finished since Phillips came off court from the doubles final in Panama.
The circuit features more than 650 tournaments in 140 countries, with players competing across six levels — from JA, which includes the junior grand slams, through to J1, J2, J3, J4 and J5 in decreasing order of grade.
Sarah Fellows, Phillips’s mother and the Gazette’s former Schools Correspondent, is playing a vital behind-the-scenes role in ensuring that Daniel and his backroom staff, which includes strength and conditioning coach Jordan Correia and Brent Kilray, can concentrate solely on the tennis.
“We've been at this for 11 years now,” she said. “I'm very thankful, very grateful for the people that support, for the team, the coaches, tremendous. They're just a tremendous team.”
She added that no moves have been made to request elite funding support from the Bermuda Government.
“Not at this moment,” she said. “We’ve had four key supporters that have supported Daniel’s journey, covering the base and coaching. Now what happens is the need to travel. I have a temporary fundraising license for the next three months, and we're planning to do some fundraising. And so that would be the next phase.
“Daniel will be back [in Bermuda] at the end of June. Between now and then, we're in fundraising mode to cover the cost of the travel to the tournaments. So I'll be reaching out to everybody.”
So back to Steve Alger and the target that he has had placed on his back by a callow 17-year-old.
Alger, who starred at collegiate level and represented Bermuda at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, where tennis returned as a full medal sport for the first time in 64 years, got to world No 457 at the height of his powers in 1981.
But if Phillips continues on his present trajectory, any rise into the top 100 of the junior world rankings by the end of this year would take him beyond Alger.
“With the high school diploma, Dan still is able to get into college, but not go into the frenzy of competition in the next year,” Sarah Fellows said. “Rather to focus on top 100; that’s the key. We’ve got some junior grand slams coming up. We're aiming for Australian Open, Wimbledon, Roland Garros and also the US Open. Which will be within the next year and a half. Well, within this next time.
“And then the Futures. Futures are interesting because that’s the next level. And they tend to be back-to-back, so that’s Cancún, Egypt, Tunisia and Turkey.
“It’s different parts of the world, but that’s next year’s sort of focus, with the team moving towards a month in Cancún, a month in Egypt and a month in Tunisia and Turkey.”