20090128-cover-0101.jpg
 photo by Robin May
 
Apparently Louisiana doesn’t get much respect from the tennis world. It’s even been said that some people in Miami think we ride to tournaments on alligators. That’s rich coming from a city whose claims to fame are pastel sport coats and Tony Montana.

On the other hand, we’ve obviously got some work to do. Granted, Lafayette’s Chanda Rubin once made it to No. 6 in the Association of Tennis Professionals rankings before injuries derailed her career, but that’s pretty much it on the professional level. Even the Louisiana Sportswriters Association, which has enshrined scores of state athletes over the years, has a noticeably short list of tennis players in its Hall of Fame. There’s Hamilton Richardson, a Tulane graduate and the No. 1 men’s player in the country in 1956 and ’58, and, well, that’s it.

Okay, so tennis hasn’t exactly been our strong suit. Until now. Maybe.  

Jordan Daigle isn’t the youngest kid out there with a dream of one day making it on the ATP Tour. At 14 years of age, he hasn’t even made it through Driver’s Ed yet. At first glance, he’s pretty much your typical eighth-grader, if a bit tall for his age. He’s also a fairly well-kept secret, perhaps because the very sport he excels in is the one at the bottom of our state’s professional radar. It’s when he puts a tennis racket in his hand that Jordan Daigle becomes anything but typical.

For the past four years, since he was 10, he’s been ranked as the best junior player in the state in his age division and a Top 10 selection in the South, despite playing a curtailed schedule of national tournaments. That will change in 2009 when Jordan will move up in age brackets to the Under-16 division. Like most other gifted youngsters in the sport, that means an increased travel schedule and what has become almost obligatory home-schooling.

“We pulled him out of the conventional school system last October, and it was a decision I fought for as long as I could,” says his father, Robert Daigle. “Unlike some other kids, we didn’t start playing him in national tournaments until a year ago this month. Others his age have been playing nationally for four years, and the reason Jordan didn’t is there’s no way you can play a national schedule and still be in a conventional school program.”

Under different circumstances, Jordan would be at Ascension Episcopal School today instead of out on the tennis court. But his father is the developer of River Ranch and co-owner of the City Club and that avails Jordan with the financial opportunity to pursue a dream.

“I researched for a year about what to do and was never comfortable with these online programs,” says Robert. “We were getting a lot of pressure from the school, and while they worked very hard with us, they just don’t like the idea that you can do well in their class without attending every day. I talked with a cardiologist at a tournament in Baton Rouge, and his son was being home-schooled through the Independent and Distance Learning Program at LSU. He said his son’s SAT and ACT scores had risen dramatically since he began the course, and that really impressed me.

“It’s a combination of independent study and private tutoring three times a week from a retired teacher who lives in River Ranch. She reviews his work and answers questions about things he’s having difficulty with. The curriculum is written by the LSU faculty, and they grade the work.”

Robert says the plan is to keep Jordan in the program through his junior year of high school and then re-enter Ascension for his senior year. “We end up spending about the same because of the amount of tutoring we’re getting for him. Comparing tuition-to-tuition, Ascension is maybe seven or eight times the cost of the distance learning program, but the spending on outside tutors pretty much makes it a wash on cost.”

Jordan is in a fortunate position, no question. But he’s made the most of the opportunity, especially on the court. According to his coach, former two-time UL Lafayette All-American Ashley Rhoney, Jordan is ranked in the Top 50 nationally and would be even higher but for the ranking system.

“They’re based on a point system, and a lot of kids just go to tournaments to chase points down,” he says. “If a youngster has the means to fly all over the country and play 20 tournaments a year in order to gather points, it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a great player. It just means he has the means to play in a lot of tournaments. According to the rankings, Jordan’s probably about 40th in the country, but I think he’s realistically in the Top 15 and definitely has the ability to be in the Top 10.”

The 14-year-old proved that a week ago, when he won his division of the Plaza Cup, the same Miami-based event that began his national tournament adventures this time last year. In 2008, Jordan was unseeded, unnoticed and virtually uninvited; he got into the main draw at the last minute as an alternate when several other entries dropped out. But he won five matches, and if no one knew who he was when he arrived, they did by the time he left.

20090128-cover-0103.jpg
 Coach Ashley Rhoney and Jordan Daigle
 photo by Robin May
 
He wasn’t going to sneak up on anyone this time around. As the No. 2 seed, Jordan blew through the field and lost only one set in five matches en route to the championship. Along the way, he beat players seeded fifth and eighth before taking out top-seeded Thai Kwiakowski in the finals in straight sets.

“His biggest asset is that’s he’s very smart and can break down an opponent very quickly,” notes Rhoney. “He’ll figure out what they don’t like and jump all over it. I wish I could say that I taught him that, but that’s something that you either have or you don’t. He does things now on the court that kids his age just don’t get. A lot of them never get it, but Jordan’s a very smart kid, and he plays with a mindset that a lot of people don’t have.

“He’s stone-cold out there.”

Robert Daigle is just as determined where his son’s future is concerned. He knows life on the professional tour is a long shot, even for one as talented as this youngster. Jordan may rule now, but the odds of his doing so in four years among the best in the world aren’t just bad, they’re terrible. In Robert’s mind, college isn’t an option. It’s a must.

“I continuously run across parents at these tournaments who have totally unrealistic expectations for their children,” he says. “They think their kid’s going to play on the pro tour and make a living doing it. And these are kids that Jordan wipes the court with. You want to just shake these people and say, ‘Wake up.’ A [very good junior] like that has about a 1-in-200 chance of making a living on the professional tour. Top 20 in the country sounds impressive, until you remember that tennis is not only an international sport but now the No. 1 sport in many countries. The odds of a kid like Jordan playing pro tennis are just not very good. So college and a degree at a great school are absolutely in his plans, and if he still has the drive after all that, try it on the pro tour then.”

Jordan’s coach agrees. “You’ve got to be awfully special to be able to come out of juniors straight into the pro game,” says Rhoney.

It doesn’t happen often. Andre Agassi turned pro at the age of 16 and had a glorious career, but the man who popularized the phrase “Image is Everything” was the exception, not the rule. Of course, try convincing a 14-year-old that.

“I definitely want that Division I scholarship to a big school, but if I had a chance to go pro, I might take that first and then later on, go to college,” says Jordan, taking a 10-minute break from practice at the River Ranch courts. “But if it’s not a serious possibility that I could make a living on the tour, I’d go to college first. You have to be in the top 75-100 in the world making a couple hundred thousand to a couple million dollars a year [to make a living].”

But there’s another side to all that coin. The elder Daigle believes that while some youngsters have the talent to go professional, they don’t have the drive. Others have the drive but lack the talent.

“I’ve watched some talented kids that he’s competed with over the years decide that they don’t want to do that anymore,” Robert says. “Is that possible with Jordan? Sure, it is. As a parent, you fully understand there may come a day when he walks into a room and says, ‘look, I don’t want to do this anymore.’ It would disappoint me if that happened, but neither his mother nor I would ever try to talk him out of that decision.”

Both his father and his coach know that a professional tennis career for Jordan, however desirable, is a long shot. American tennis simply isn’t what it used to be. The Stars and Stripes once dominated the sport, but in the final 2008 ATP rankings, only eight American flags were listed in the Top 100. But tennis, like most things, is cyclical and in four or five years, who knows?

For now, Jordan Daigle is more than content to play a little tennis, do a little schoolwork and hang out with his friends. He’s a lucky kid, says his dad.

Absolutely.


The Mightiest Mite?

In tennis, the question of “How young is too young?” is being redefined almost daily. It wasn’t that long ago that most of us were aghast at girls turning professional at very young ages. Steffi Graf turned pro at 16, won the US Open in 1979 but was effectively through before she was 22. Tracy Austin actually won a professional tournament at 14 and was a two-time Open winner, but was done at 21. Gabriela Sabatini became a pro at the age of 15, won the US Open when she was 20 and was gone from the circuit before she turned 25. Jennifer Capriati turned pro at 14 and flamed out when she hit 20.

The phenomenon doesn’t seem to occur as much among male players. There’s a thought that physicality and early maturation among females has a lot to do with that, but naturally, there are exceptions. Andre Agassi began his ATP career at the age of 16, yet won eight Grand Slam singles titles before he was through. Spain’s Rafael Nadal won his first ATP match when he was 15 and has gone on to win five Grand Slam singles titles and is the No. 1 player in the world.

Now comes the story of Jan Silva, whose Rancho Cordova, Calif., parents sold their home, their cars and their possessions and moved to France so Jan could train at the Mouratoglou Tennis Academy near Paris. That’s a pretty serious commitment to a child who hasn’t entered the first grade yet.

Jan Silva is 5 years old.      

“That’s way too young,” says Ashley Rhoney, Jordan Daigle’s coach and a former coach of Chanda Rubin. “I mean, how do you know what’s going to happen when that kid hits adolescence? You’re going to bank on a 5-year-old that he’s going to want to do that? That may work for some people, but I don’t know how you do that.”  

Jan’s older brother, 11-year-old Kadyn, is also considered a talented player and is receiving training at Mouratoglon. A USA Today story on the family quotes father Scott Silva saying the best-case scenario is that both children grow up to win Grand Slam titles. Worst case? Jan wins a bunch of Grand Slams while Kadyn isn’t as successful as he’d like and goes on to do whatever he wants.  

“To sell all your possessions and put everything behind a kid is so absurd for so many reasons,” laments Jordan Daigle’s father, Robert. “Can you imagine the pressure when the kid gets old enough to know what it all means? Mom and Dad have sold everything, and if I don’t succeed and become one of the top players in the world, how much will I have disappointed them? I can’t fathom the pressure they put on a kid like that. It’s crazy.” — Don Allen

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