For most elite prep athletes the terms NCAA Champion, All-American, and Five Star Recruit pretty much clear a straight path to a professional career. All-American basketball players have agents lining up to represent them before they complete their one season college basketball career; consensus All-American football players can show off their skills to thoughtful scouts at pro days and combines; blue chip baseball recruits can be drafted before they are old enough to vote, but professional guarantees have not been the case with young, collegiate tennis talent.
However, as men’s professional tennis evolves, and athletes peak at later ages, NCAA and collegiate tennis is becoming a more viable and productive option for young players. Ryan Shane is one of the collegiate players helping to turn the tide and stigma of college tennis. Shane has been one of the most decorated college players of the past 2o years. A 2015 NCAA Singles Champion, a key member of two NCAA Team Champions at the University of Virginia, a recipient of All American and ITA awards, Shane has successfully navigated NCAA tennis. Having used his college tennis to test the waters of professional tennis, Shane now finds himself on the cusp of a full time pro career– a potential career that has been long in the making.
When Shane was a kid watching his dad and brother play tennis on the green clay court in the backyard of their Fairfax, Virginia home, he wasn’t thinking about a professional tennis career. He was simply playing tennis, trying to emulate his brother, and have fun with his dad. But right away Ryan’s father Jack noticed something special about his son,
“He was an extremely fast learner. We just had to show him a technique once and he picked it up immediately.” Jack also says his son was always naturally strong,” Jack said. “He had an overhead at the age of 7.”
His dad soon entered him in a local tennis academy, and that raw ability began to become acute skill. As Shane advanced through the junior ranks, his father would emerge as an important figure in helping to build his future collegiate and professional aspirations.
“I had my dad who was always there for me, pushing me to play and encouraging me every step of the way. If I didn’t have my dad I do not think I would be where I am today. It wasn’t until my early to mid teens that I really fell in love with tennis and realized this is what I wanted to do. However, if I wasn’t being pushed by my parents, I think it would have been too late for me to have a chance at making it in the professional world,” Shane says of his father and mother.
Beyond the physical gifts that Ryan possessed from a young age, he also benefited from a laid back personality, which his parent’s credit to part of both his success and ownership of his game and goals.
“Ryan always had to have fun during his practices. At a young age he never took tennis too seriously. He could at times be a jokester on the court and even during tournaments. We think this is a big factor with him not burning out like many other juniors.”
Jack and Elaine (Ryan’s mother) Shane go on to point out that Ryan showed a confidence and decision making ability about what was best for him early.
“He was very selective with his fitness routine. If he didn’t like it, he didn’t do it. Around age 15, after a shoulder injury sidelined him for 3 months, Ryan decided on his own that he wanted to get in shape and began his own weight training routine. ”
Thus, began the dream for Ryan Shane, and although as a junior he began to understand he longed to be a pro tour player, he also started to notice that his game might not be where it needed to be for a successful transition from junior to pro. However, one of the top tennis programs in the nation was courting Shane, and at UVA Shane’s game would find a home to grow even more.
UVA, Coach Boland, and Growth
Brian Boland, long time head tennis coach at the University of Virgina, has cultivated one of the most successful men’s programs in the last 20 years of NCAA tennis. Twelve trips to nationals, with 2 NCAA team titles and 3 NCAA team runner up finishes, 5 ITA Indoor team championships, and numerous ITA singles and double champions and NCAA All Americans, are just a few of the accolades coach Boland and his assistants have brought to the program and university. Coach Boland and his staff have used this success to help land top recruiting classes year after year– so many of the nations young elite players wanting a chance to grow both in tennis and take advantage of the benefits of UVA’s renowned academics. Ryan Shane was one of those top recruits that came to Charlottesville seeking those things, and he made an impact on the coaches right away.
“Ryan is an extremely respectful, sincere and caring guy which allows him to be arguably the most coachable player this program has ever had,” Boland plainly states. He went on to expand that statement saying, “He is always willing to listen to what everyone has to say about him regardless of who they are and trust they are just looking out for his best interest. His ability to trust coaches and understand that there is a process, which you must buy into to improve over the long-term, is something special and one that very few elite players have.”
Shane agrees that buying into what his coaches at UVA said about his game was a great catalyst in improvement for him.
“I wasn’t sure what my game was missing until I arrived at UVA. Right away the coaches were able to pick up on flaws in my game and help me perfect them. the coaching staff taught me things that I would never have been able to learn on my own. ”
At 6’4, Shane is a physical tennis player: big serve, big forehand and a strong one handed backhand, Shane is continually able to force his opponents into short ball returns that he can either attack for winners or approach the net behind.
“Ryan has practiced with a number of top 100 players in the world and they have said that nobody generates the pace that Ryan does time and time again,” coach Boland noted.
Coupling this power with his coachability, Boland believes that Shane has the makings of a successful touring pro. Boland, who has graduated several players over the past 10 years that have become top 100 pros, believes that “…trait(s) could very well take him beyond the elite college player ranks and into the elite professional status.”
Shane knows and touts the benefit of the UVA program on his game and maturity.
“…I always had three coaches dissecting my game and showing me how I could get better. On top of the coaching, there are also high levels of competition. Almost every weekend you are playing a top player, and put in adverse situations. This teaches you how to deal with pressure and how to find a way to win. You will not play your best tennis every single college match, but you are taught how to win with your B or C game.”
The quality of collegiate tennis has improved to where now ITA and college tourneys are the equivalent of playing ATP Futures and ATP Challenger events. Finding top players to hit against is not a problem for Shane at UVA or even in his own ACC Conference. The UVA roster includes former 18’s U.S. Champion Colin Altamirano, former collegiate #1 Thai-Son Kwiatkowski, and ATP futures- tour veterans like Luca Corinteli, and J.C. Aragone. In the NCAA finals at Baylor last season, Shane defeated 2014 Wimbledon Junior Champion Noah Rubin (of ACC rival Wake Forest), who this season upset Benoit Paire in the first round of the Australian Open. Shane’s game has been honed and focused from the competition he has seen while at the University of Virginia.
With the accolades that Ryan Shane has brought to the UVA tennis program, it would be easy to assume that Coach Boland’s quintessential Ryan Shane memory would be as simple as Shane winning the NCAA Tourney, or him helping to secure two team titles, but what has left the lasting impression with Coach Boland is Shane’s lack of entitlement and commitment to the team and program.
“I would say that a defining “Ryan Shane Moment” was when he won the NCAA singles championship last May and stated that he didn’t know what to do or how to celebrate since he “never won anything in his life,” Coach Boland said.
This humbleness and respect exudes from the simplest act by Shane. His demeanor in emails; his asking permission from his coaches before interviews, the tone he takes when talking about his parents– all examples of the genuineness Shane brings both to his tennis and his life.
Boland summed it up aptly saying, “He’s just a humble young man who happens to be quite a great tennis player.”
Looking towards the end of his collegiate tennis career and ahead to life on the professional tour, Shane first has business at hand he wants to finish. He first wants to win another team NCAA championship for UVA. Shane will miss the team atmosphere at UVA, having created so many of his best memories with his teammates during the war that is team collegiate tennis.
“I’ll miss having the coaches on my court battling through tough matches along side of me. I’m gonna miss my teammates on the side of my court cheering me on. I’ll also miss rooting my team on, being on the side of one of my teammates courts as it comes down to the wire at 3-3, like this past weekend I’ll never forget cheering on Henrik (Wiersholm) as he played Wake Forest. It came down to the last match and to see him pull that out and getting to celebrate that moment with my team will be one of the things that I’ll miss and remember, ” Shane stated.
In the near future these battles will be fought by Shane himself, for himself: for his ranking, for his prize money, for his pride–a stark change compared to the team first mentality at UVA. As Shane prepares for his chance at pro tour success, he is still in the formulation of a transition plan. Shane played a smattering of future, challenger, and main tour events last year and had moderate success. Shane won a future’s title and was runner-up in another tourney. Using the wildcard he earned via his NCAA singles championship, Shane drew 27th ranked Jeremy Chardy in the first round of the US Open, and although he started the match tight, he did pull out a tough 3rd set using his big serve and forehand to win the set tie break and push Chardy into a more contentious 4th set. Working with Coach Boland and Stephen Amritraj, the USTA college coach, Shane will plan a tourney schedule, training regimen, etc. Shane has decided to work and travel with Carlos Benatzky, a local pro with collegiate and professional experience. Looking at his game, Shane knows that he needs to continue to work on his serve and stay healthy . Shane expresses relief that he is moving past a hip injury that he has been dealing with since last season. The FAI (femoroacetabular impingement) affected his movement and mobility, but Shane should “within this next week it actually should almost be completely healed.” Shane also realized that the successful pros, the ones that can make a living on tour and support themselves, have weapons they can rely on to win points easily, and understand that their careers are a process and a culmination of events and matches.
“My game revolves around my serve so I need to aim for high first serve percentages, this will be a huge key for me. Also, just embracing the tour. I know that when I leave college I am going to take a lot of losses, but this is a part of tennis. If I can embrace this and understand that it is all part of the process I think I will do just fine, ” Shane said.
When asked about the intangible aspects it takes to be a pro tennis player on tour, Coach Boland talked about how his coaching staff continually teaches their players that resiliency is key to success in all levels of tennis pointing out the true importance of “the great ability to embrace adversity and suffering both mentally and physically.” Boland believes that Shane has demonstrated this type of resiliency time and time again. Boland points to a Sweet Sixteen matchup against Columbia last year in the NCAAs when Shane rolled his ankle badly during the match at a critical moment when the victory was still very much up in the air.
” A lot of players would have nursed the injury, some maybe would have retired from the match, but Ryan took some time, collected himself, walked it off and ended up winning the match, which happened to be the turning point in that highly contested dual match.”
Boland mentioned Shane’s comeback win over Rubin in the NCAA final, then even sighted a loss Shane suffered as a big favorite against the University of Miami as other examples that Shane has continually fought back from adversity to create a better competitor within himself.
“Ryan’s ability to rebound and bounce back shows a major characteristic that is absolutely essential at the next level because losing becomes an every week occurrence,” Boland added.
The 2016 NCAA Tennis Championships take place at the Case Tennis Complex in Tulsa in May. It wouldn’t be a far stretch of the imagination to think that Shane will be there helping to hoist multiple trophies in the air over the course of that week. Beyond that week, however, lies a blank canvas, where the future will be painted on the isolated courts of small towns with the names like Evansville, Winnetka, and Champagne.
Shane will be faced with so many of the issues that have derailed previous NCAA champions trying to make the transition: small prize money, travel issues, developing rapport with a support staff, how to pay the support staff. But the difference between so many of those other players that came prior to Shane and Shane himself may lie in the resiliency and natural ability that Shane first learned from his dad on a crumbly green clay court under the trees of a Virginia summer, his small silhouette casting a long shadow in the dying light as his arm stretched upward, finger pointed towards the green ball in the sky. His eyes widening at the impending swing, the joyful anticipation of the explosion of the ball as the target falls closer and closer to his racket. The path of that ball much like the path of his professional career all held within his own grasp.
Last Word on Sports will follow Ryan Shane through the season documenting his progress and transition to the pro tour. We will have first hand content and exclusive footage, interviews, and blogs from Shane as he journeys through his first year on tour.