Full Court Presence
I played in my first international tennis tournament when I was eight years old. At 10, I played in Croatia. By 12, I was playing against the best young tennis players in the world, all over the world.
But all of this came with a price.
By eighth grade, I was taking nearly 30 out of 70 school days off to travel for matches. Around that time, I was offered a spot at the USTA facility in New York to train full-time, and at 14, it seemed like an incredibly easy choice: sit around in school or play the sport I love all day. When I started training full-time, my days were regimented and strictly planned. On a normal day, cardio was from 9-10, drills from 10-12, lunch and homework from 12-2, sets and points from 2-4, and weights from 4-5. As I got older and my game improved, I split my time between home and a tennis-oriented boarding center in Florida. When I was there, I lived in a dorm. My schedule got stricter. Travel became more frequent.
I was focused on tennis, and for a long time that was okay with me. It gave me purpose, and distracted me from what I was “missing” from the normal high school experience. And I was missing a lot.
I was on the road with my coaches for weeks at a time, playing match after match in country after country. The exposure to so many different people and cultures is definitely one of the most incredible parts of my experience so far because of how much I learned and grew, but I only recently started to comprehend that. At the time, I only knew to play tennis and block everything else out. But as the days grew longer, and travels became more frequent, I realized it was a feeling of isolation. Over time, this isolation taught me to accept new relationships in addition to celebrating the old ones, not in spite of them.
When I was successful in tennis, I was usually too caught up in training and meetings to fully acknowledge the disconnect I was feeling from my home. But when I had the time to process how much life had changed, I felt very alone. I was on a completely different path from everyone I knew. My relationships with my childhood friends faded and the invitations to hang out came less frequently. When I was home, I wasn’t in group chats and I didn’t have a consistent group of friends – I did everything alone.
I think the darkest moments came when I was injured.
There were a few months during an elbow injury where I wasn’t playing, I wasn’t practicing, and I couldn’t train. All I could do was sit in my house and do my online school work – again, alone. Those were the times when I really hated tennis. I hated what it had taken from me and I regretted ever giving up the opportunity for a traditional high school experience. In those moments, I felt angry, excluded, and stuck. I wanted out.
Not only was I consistently on the road in different states, I was in different countries for weeks at a time. But I gained an important perspective through my travels. I started to pay attention to who was just interested in my success, versus those who wanted to be my friend, no matter how I played or how healthy I was. It was hard for me to see my friends go out together, have parties, or quite frankly, do anything that a normal high schooler would do. Even a couple friends getting dinner on an odd weeknight could send me spiraling into frustration over the strange life path that I had chosen. The separation offered me once-in-a-lifetime cultural experiences that taught me a lot, but deprived me of the connection to others that any teenager craves. Eventually, that lack of connection became overwhelming and I decided to go back to my high school to wrap up senior year.
It’s obvious I didn’t have a normal high school experience but when I reflect on it, I wouldn’t change anything. Between new school times, less tennis, and finding my place in friend groups, transitioning was stressful. But I developed a new appreciation for the importance of balance. I realize now how much the time away from my family and friends colored the way I interact with and treat people. I had a new understanding of how to support and be supported, and I wasn’t interested in materialism or surface level interaction.
And most importantly, I was comfortable being different for the first time in my life.
The time afforded me space to grow differently from many of my peers, and I found that my priorities had shifted. Until then, my experience with pressure was when I tried to impress coaches and win matches, not what I wore or how I performed academically. Tennis did not prevent me from cultivating relationships—it simply shifted what experiences were “normal” for me. Ultimately, when I look back on all the training and travelling, I am confident that it’s what developed my perseverance, grit and love. And I know that these, no matter how different they are from those of the average person, make me the person I am today. For that, I am nothing but grateful.
I ended up deciding on Carolina because I thought it offered a balance of great tennis, incredible academics, and a space to be myself. All of my experiences taught me to prioritize what made me happy and to cherish the people who supported me unconditionally. Carolina seemed like it was a storehouse for these values, and for the kinds of people by whom I wanted to be surrounded.
My whole life I’ve been “Will Blumberg, the tennis player.” I recognize that a lot of my life has been about tennis, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s hard to feel fully understood when people only acknowledge one part of your identity. When I think back to the times I felt most alone...
I am reminded how dangerous it can be to view tennis—or any singular thing—as the only hope.
The difference between success and happiness became central to my perspective on how I wanted to approach life, especially in finding a family here at Carolina. While the history I had with hometown friends served as the platform for friendship during my time away in high school, college forced me to build new relationships from the ground up.
I haven’t always done it right and I know there will be times in the future when I slip, but the extent to which I value authenticity has exponentiated. When I call people family, I mean it. When someone is my friend, I’m all in. I struggled with conforming, finding my place, and establishing my priorities just like any other first-year college student, but I will never take for granted the people who stood with me in those hard moments because I remember what it’s like to feel alone.
My support system is deeply rooted in my growth as a person and as a tennis player. I would not be the man and person that I am today if it weren’t for my parents and my two amazing brothers. They never failed to support who I want to be. Any amount of success would be meaningless if I didn’t know they would still be there when I fail. I have a tattoo that says WE in my mother’s handwriting to remind me of why I play, love, and live the way that I do.
Whether purposefully or not, a lot of people view athletes as statistics. When we do well, we are celebrated. When we don’t, our disappointment is exacerbated by the comments said and the articles written by others. For me, the biggest compliment anyone can give is congratulating our team for sportsmanship, kindness, and effort. For doing things right, not just to win.
No matter the level of competition, number of championships, or media coverage, there is no excuse to treat people poorly.
Everyone has a passion. Mine is tennis. It’s what I love, and despite any success or failures I’ll have, it’s become my journey. And I need everyone to see me as a person who’s here not in spite of his journey, but because of it.
- Will Blumberg