Searching for the next great player

  • Scott M. Johnson<br>For the Enterprise
  • Thursday, February 28, 2008 10:54am

MILL CREEK — Scott Shogreen moves around a tennis court kind of like a grizzly bear tackles supper. He questions one young athlete’s hustle, threatens to fire a ball between the eyes of another, and asks a third, “Did you forget to take your smart pill this morning?”

This is about the time when most kids would pick up their racquets, call mommy or daddy on the cell phone and get the heck out of Dodge. But Shogreen isn’t interested in most kids.

His Northwest Tennis Academy, which has been in operation at Mill Creek Country Club for nine months now, is more for the kids who can take it. Rather than training kids for a spot on the high school doubles team, Shogreen is hoping to unearth the rare 9- and 10-year-olds who have what it takes to make the professional tour.

“The whole idea of the academy is to find the kids that have the work ethic and want to become better than just the average player,” Shogreen said. “So we’re hard on them. And if they can’t take it or they don’t like it, it’s not the right program for them.”

Shogreen’s methods aren’t always pretty, but they usually produce the desired effect. Maybe that’s why tennis parents have been lining up to send their kids to Shogreen’s academy.

“Scott is a tough, demanding coach, and that takes awhile to get used to,” said Jon Anderson, whose 14-year-old daughter is one of the academy’s top players. “But he also has a unique relationship with kids. They feel comfortable talking to him, and he has a unique rapport with them. He has the ability to be demanding but at the same time make it very fun.”

To the untrained eye, Shogreen’s academy looks about as much fun as a forehand smash to the face. The three-hour daily sessions can be grueling.

After sending the kids — ages 9 to 15 — through a series of drills, he lines them up along the sideline and has them run two dashes across the four-court surface. After a quick water break, they’re back at it again, this time running wind sprints. While most of the kids come across the line looking exhausted, 10-year-old Emmett Egger begs for more sprints.

“All right,” Shogreen says with a proud grin, “everybody line up again.”

Shogreen can usually spot the ones who can take it. Whether it’s their confident swagger or a blistering forehand or a visible need to compete, some kids just have it. Those are the ones Shogreen gladly takes under his wing.

One such pupil came to him in the mid-1980s, showing a willingness to do whatever Shogreen asked. The coach-player relationship grew so close that the young athlete’s father eventually paid Shogreen to move to Spokane and work with his son throughout the high school years.

By the time he was 24 years old, Jan-Michael Gambill found himself in the quarterfinals at Wimbledon. Now 26 and ranked 42nd in the world, Gambill still flies Shogreen to many of his pro tournaments and has kept a close relationship with him.

“Aside from my dad (Chuck), Scott’s had by far the biggest hand in Jan-Michael’s career,” said Torrey Gambill, Jan-Michael’s younger brother and also a professional tennis player. “Scott’s been there almost as long as my dad, and I think Jan-Michael owes a lot to Scott.”

Shogreen, a star player as a junior and currently nationally ranked in the 35-and-older division, developed quite a rivalry with Gambill. The student first beat his teacher at the age of 17, and they have had many classic battles since. Torrey, who is five years younger than Jan-Michael, remembers one particular tournament in which Shogreen and Jan-Michael argued their way through a singles championship before pairing up as a doubles team later that day.

“They won the doubles final,” Torrey said, “but they didn’t talk to each other the whole match.”

Shogreen estimates he’s coached “hundreds” of young tennis players one-on-one, including several who went on to be ranked nationally on the junior circuit and six who made it as far as the professional tour. But he’s never had an ensemble quite like the Northwest Academy.

Time will tell whether the academy will produce another Jan-Michael Gambill, but the current group certainly has its share of stars in waiting. Older players such as 15-year-old Tristan Biesecker of Stanwood and 14-year-old Ashley Anderson of Edmonds are already near the top of the Pacific Northwest rankings. Nine-year-old Hailee Gopinath and Egger, 10, head the new group of young prodigies.

Biesecker has been working with Shogreen since the age of 10. While he admits having passing thoughts about giving up on the sport so he could spend more time being a kid, Biesecker believes the hard work will pay off.

“He’s strict, but in a good way,” Biesecker said. “He pushes you to the limit he thinks you need to be pushed to. He’s definitely demanding.”

Unlike Biesecker, who opted not to play tennis at Stanwood High School, Anderson plans to go out for the varsity team as a freshman at Kamiak next fall. Not only is she likely to make the team, but she could well be one of the favorites to win the league singles title despite being a ninth-grader.

Anderson, who started working with Shogreen five years ago, is currently ranked No. 3 in the Pacific Northwest among 14-and-under girls and sixth in the 16-and-under age division.

Anderson’s father, Jon, said her growth as a tennis player has helped her as a person.

“She has a confidence she maybe wouldn’t have had otherwise,” he said. “She’ll go into a school project and know it will have a good result. She knows she can get it done if she just keeps working at a problem, kind of like continuing to work on her forehand and seeing results.”

Biesecker and Anderson serve as role models to the academy’s younger players. Egger and Gopinath are too young to be ranked nationally, but Shogreen said he believes both can compete with anyone their age.

Egger proved as much earlier this year by winning his age division at the “Little Mo” Nationals, a tournament that includes top players from all over the country. Gopinath hasn’t started playing in tournaments yet, but Shogreen expects big things from her.

“She just hammers the ball,” Shogreen said. “I’ve never seen a 9-year old that hits the ball that hard and with that kind of hand-eye coordination.”

Gopinath claims that her serve has been clocked at 87 miles per hour, which is about the speed at which Martina Hingis was serving the ball during the prime of her career. Gopinath is dreaming of Hingis-like success in her future.

“I want to be a professional tennis player and win hundreds of thousands of grand slams,” she said with a confident grin. “I want to be like Martina Navratilova.”

Parents like Phil Egger and Jon Anderson are careful not to put too much pressure on their kids, so Shogreen does it for them. He encourages them to dream big, to push themselves to test their limits.

“The goal for them is to make the pro tour,” said Pat Dreves, an assistant coach at the academy, “but only one-hundredth of one percent make it.”

Shogreen and Dreves hope their academy can provide something the state of Washington has never had: a world-class place for youths to develop.

“The bar is set so much lower” in the Pacific Northwest, Shogreen said. “That’s why we put this together. When you watch the pros play, when you see the (Andre) Agassis practice on the court, you set the bar a lot higher. And I think that makes a big difference. So we’re just trying to raise the expectation levels of the parents and the kids.”

With a slightly unconventional style, Shogreen and Dreves are doing just that.

Scott M. Johnson writes for The Herald in Everett.

Talk to us