What if your child were offered a full scholarship to play tennis at Stanford University but turned it down to follow her dream?
That’s exactly what happened when 18-year-old Harrison resident Louisa Chirico made the decision to turn pro instead of going to college this fall. At the time of her signing, Chirico was considered the No. 1 college recruit in the nation and could have gone to any school she wanted, including Duke, USC and Yale, which tried in vain to woo the young athlete.
It’s a decision that might surprise many, especially parents, for whom getting their child into an elite college can be an obsession, spurring an entire industry. So winning a full ride to an elite university is like finding the elusive golden ticket in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”
Still, as tempting as the offers were for the promising prospect, she bucked the trend and followed her heart. It helped to have incredibly supportive parents in Carol and John Chirico, who didn’t succumb to the college parenting pressure-cooker but instead allowed their daughter to choose her own path.
“My parents obviously wanted me to go to college and get an education, but it was definitely my decision to go pro,” Louisa says.
“We always said it would be her decision,” Carol says. “The best we can do is support her. Obviously, if we felt she was making a bad decision, we would have as parents said, ‘No, you’re not at that point.’ We also had a lot of people who said at this stage, it makes a lot of sense for her to go pro if she wants to go pro.”
Those people included coach Jay Gooding, who has been training her for the past few years at the USTA Training Center – East in Flushing Meadows, Queens, which opened its doors in 2010 to elite junior tennis players and their personal coaches in the Northeast.
“My coach was very supportive and helpful in my decision,” Louisa says.
Patrick McEnroe, former captain of the United States Davis Cup team and USTA general manager of player development, has also coached her and offered guidance. “Patrick McEnroe has definitely had a role in my development,” she says.
“When I first saw her, I remember thinking ‘Wow, this girl can really move,’” McEnroe told a journalist at the US Open last year after watching her play in 2011 against Sam Crawford, (2012 US Open girls’ singles champion) and Taylor Townsend (2012 year-end junior No. 1).
And it was McEnroe who sat down with her parents to explain the pros and cons of being homeschooled so that she could advance her tennis. At the time, she was attending Rye Country Day School.
“In the beginning of 10th grade, after a month she switched over from Rye Country Day School and became a Laurel Springs student, an online accredited high school education,” Carol says about the school, which allows students to work at their own pace. Because of the rigors of training, which for her include four hours of tennis and two hours of fitness a day, it doesn’t allow for a full day of school.
In his role at the USTA, McEnroe has said that 99 percent of junior players should aspire to play collegiate varsity tennis and only the truly exceptional players should turn pro. By all accounts, Louisa is part of that 1 percent who have the chops to make their dreams come true, which in her case means “winning at least one Grand Slam, preferably the US Open, and one day being ranked No. 1 in the world.” Spoken like a true champion.
More and more highly ranked boys are choosing to play college tennis before embarking on a professional tennis career, because of the physical demands of the game and the fact that most young men have not physically matured at the age of 18, like the current No. 11 singles player, John Isner, who turned pro at age 22 after being a four-time All American at the University of Georgia and carrying the Bulldogs to the NCAA title in 2007. Even brothers Patrick and John McEnroe made the decision to play college tennis at Stanford, though John turned pro after his first year.
But the landscape for their female counterparts looks quite different, considering they hit their physical prime earlier, thus making the decision to go to college more difficult. If you look at the current top 100 players in the Women’s Tennis Association, not one has played in college.
Last year as a junior player, Louisa reached the semifinals of the girls’ tournaments at the French Open and Wimbledon, both times losing to Belinda Bencic, the eventual champ. Interestingly, Louisa beat Bencic at a pro qualifying event earlier that year.
Since going pro six weeks ago, Louisa has been off to an impressive start, winning her first $25,000 ITF tournament on clay in Padova, Italy, reaching her best singles WTA ranking of No. 268. She also collected a doubles title in Switzerland with partner Sanaz Marand, putting her at a No. 281 doubles ranking.
While her tennis idol is Belgium player Kim Clijsters, who retired in 2012, it’s the hard-hitting Aussie, Samantha Stosur, whose game she most admires and tries to emulate.
“I really like Stosur…..I definitely try to model some of my plays off of her, just the way that she plays, how she uses her forehand, because she plays different from a lot of the women. She plays with a lot more shape and spin and just, her balls are different.”
Like the 5-foot 8-inch Stosur, Louisa (5 feet 6 inches) has a big forehand, which she says is her greatest weapon. Her hard-hitting style and speed on the court display her raw athleticism. (As a kid she played all sports but unlike most professional tennis players didn’t commit exclusively to the game until the ripe old age of 13.)
With any big dream come big sacrifices.
“I definitely had to give up a lot of things that normal teenagers get to experience. Like I didn’t get to walk at my graduation.”
But the teenager says she stays in touch with her friends whenever she’s home.
“I’m still trying to have a social life as much as I can, because that’s important too, I think. But it all pays off for me. The rewards of being able to do what I love every day definitely outweigh the sacrifices.”