Shane Monroe had the kind of tennis season last spring that any high school player would love, let alone a freshman.
The Ventnor resident went undefeated for St. Augustine Prep in the regular season, was named The Press' Player of the Year and reached the state tournament semifinals. At that time, he was No. 65 in the United States Tennis Association's Middle States boys 16-and-under rankings and 219th in 18-and-under.
To many, that would all seem remarkable for a freshman. To Monroe, it wasn't nearly enough.
Monroe, now 16, left his Ventnor home and St. Augustine Prep before the current school year to live in New York, be home-schooled and train full time at the John McEnroe Tennis Academy (JMTA) at SPORTIME Randall's Island Tennis Center in Manhattan. The academy, which opened in 2010, seemed to be the best chance for a kid from South Jersey to train full time and stay close to his family.
"We were running out of options," Monroe said in a phone interview Friday night. "We were looking at all different places and finally saw JMTA advertised so we decided to try New York. We didn't want to go too far, like California, or at the farthest, Florida."
At JMTA, Monroe trains regularly with some of the best coaches and trainers in the country, including Fritz Buehning, who was a high school champion from Milburn High School in Essex County in the 1970s and played on the pro tour for several years after starring at the University of California, and Sophie Scott, a fitness expert who works with elite tennis players.
Monroe is now the top-ranked 16-year-old in USTA Middle States and ranked second in 18-and-under. He has a 10-3 tournament record this year and in December was the last American player at the 65th annual Orange Bowl International Tennis Championship, a highly competitive junior event in Plantation, Fla.
In the Orange Bowl's Round of 16, Monroe lost to 12th-ranked, eventual runner-up Diego Pedraza of Colombia, 3-6, 6-0, 6-4. More recently, Monroe defeated top-ranked 18-year-old Jonathan Ho 7-6 (8-6), 6-4 to win a Level 4 sectional tournament at the Oxford Athletic Club in Wexford, Penn.
"That didn't happen that easily," he said of his new level of success. "When I first came to the academy, (John McEnroe) said I was just raw talent. I started to see a change in my game (at the Orange Bowl). I ended up beating the best 16-year-old in China, Yifan Dang, 4-6, 7-6 (7-5), 6-0. Once I started beating highly ranked players, that gave me more confidence for the next tournaments to come."
Living in New York
Monroe began at JMTA in September, and his father, Cary, used to drive him back and forth to New York 2-4 days a week so Shane could fulfill his desire to improve his game. The elder Monroe works in real estate and would conduct his business while Shane spent the day at the academy.
Then they'd head back to Ventnor.
The elder Monroe said that Shane is one of 10 junior players who received a JMTA scholarship that covers court time, lessons and some traveling expenses. Cary Monroe said the scholarships are based on ability and potential, and he didn't want his son to miss out on the opportunity.
However, JMTA members Jason Kaplan and wife Nola Bonis recognized how hectic the commute was becoming for the Monroes and offered to be Shane's host family during the week. Monroe now has his own room in their apartment overlooking Central Park. He also has the friendship of their son, Zachary, 15, and daughter, Anna Maite, 13.
Earlier this month, the family took Monroe to an exhibition match at Madison Square Garden, where Andy Roddick upset Roger Federer. Monroe also likes to spend time exploring Central Park.
"It was very scary, especially New York City," Cary Monroe said, laughing about his son living 2½ hours away. "But he's living with this family, which was very gracious to take him in, especially with two kids of their own. It was something very nice and we can't be thankful enough."
Cary Monroe said its amazing how focused his son is on fulfilling his dream to be a professional tennis player.
"Not just to me, but all the coaches up there, too," he said. "They are quite amazed that one kid can be so focused on what he wants to do."
The elder Monroe said Shane's options include four years of college and then going pro, or one or two years of college and then turning pro, the path taken by players such as James Blake and Buehning. Or, Shane could even try to play the pro tour right out of high school.
"The goal right now is to finish high school and then when it's time to decide to go to college, we'll make that decision then. As long as Shane has that burning desire, I'll try to do whatever I can to help him succeed at it," he said, adding that it is the plan he and wife Vicki have for their son.
Monroe is being home-schooled through the Laurel Springs School, an accredited online program. He said it can be difficult without a teacher present but says it's manageable with the help of his parents.
There has been a lot of change in his life, but he says it was the right choice. He had considered staying at St. Augustine Prep and continuing to commute to the academy.
"I wish the academy was closer to Ventnor," he said. "But I think it's for the best for my tennis game, whether I go to college or go pro. Being at JMTA full time will help me prepare. If I'm in school, I don't think my tennis would be getting as good. I don't see myself as a player that has a whole lot of talent. I feel I have to work harder to get better."
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