Caymanian teenager attending top tennis academy in Florida

Jade Wilkinson, center, with Coach Red Ayme and Head of Female Tennis Margie Zesinger at the IMG Academy.

Seventeen-year-old Jade Wilkinson has accepted a partial scholarship to IMG in Florida, one of the world’s top tennis academies.

“Jade’s scholarship is a big moment for Cayman tennis, a game changer,” said Susan Lindsay, president of the Tennis Federation of the Cayman Islands. “It is proof that if a young player works hard enough, it is possible to pursue a tennis career in the U.S. straight from Cayman.

“The whole tennis community is delighted with this result, it confirms we’re getting many things right, that we have a good structure.”

Jade, Cayman’s top female junior tennis player, started her new life of intensive training at the Florida sports academy early last month. IMG specializes in training young athletes for the professional worlds of numerous sports beside tennis, including basketball, soccer and lacrosse.

This is the first time a Caymanian youngster has been offered an IMG tennis scholarship, and a major achievement for the young tennis champion.

“IMG is a Mecca for aspiring athletes, and scholarships to this prestigious academy are rare and hard to come by,” said Dale Avery, one of Jade’s Cayman coaches.

Former Cayman Prep and High School pupil Jade has set a benchmark to which other junior players can now realistically aspire, noted Ms. Lindsay. “They can set their sights on a tennis academy as a way to get into U.S. college tennis, or as a stepping stone to joining the pro circuit. Jade has shown the way.”

Jade, whose younger sister, Willow, is also skilled with a racquet, started playing tennis when she was just 7 years old, taking a weekly lesson with her preschool teacher.

“I enjoyed the sport,” said Jade, “so my Mum took me to the Cayman Islands Tennis Club to join in a group lesson. I sat on the side of the court refusing to join in with a group of boys that didn’t seem to want to play with a girl. Finally after four weeks, I joined in and haven’t looked back since.”

Jade is already enjoying life at IMG, where there are more than 1,000 sports students. “I miss Cayman,” she said, “but I have settled in quickly and I am enjoying my time here on and off the court, from school to tennis to campus life.”

The end goal,” she noted, “is to play collegiate tennis at a highly ranked school, and so I am working hard at IMG Academy to make this happen.”

At the IMG Bollettieri Tennis Academy, as it is formally known, Jade will be able to compete in a variety of tournaments, more than she could here on island, as well as practice and play against many girls at her level and above.

The academy has 55 courts, and former students include such tennis greats as Andre Agassi, Monica Seles, Maria Sharapova and Kei Nishikori.

Red Ayme, who took Tommy Haas to No. 2 in the world rankings, leads a team of four coaches who work with Jade daily, noted Margie Zesinger, director of IMG’s female tennis program.

Ms. Zesinger is already a big fan of Jade: “She’s a great girl; very, very positive. Her energy, determination and drive are extremely high. She has adjusted to being here so well, and the girls all love her – not just the tennis girls but across all the sports.”

CITC’s Adam Bayley was Jade’s first coach back in 2008. She stuck with him until he left Grand Cayman in 2015. Since then, numerous local coaches have played a role in her development, including Uli Hoppe, Dana Parziale and the team at The Ritz-Carlton; Ilian Nachev at the Cayman Islands Tennis Club in South Sound; and former professional player Yana Koroleva at Cayman Sports.

Former CITC manager Rob Seward took her and other juniors to tournaments in Jamaica, and the club’s Dale Avery also played his part, for several years leading the weekly group practice sessions for the top juniors.

“And then,” said Jade’s mother, LaRene, “arrived the little angel from heaven, the coach that came down to fill in at the Ritz who just happened to have been one of her coaches from her summer camp at IMG last year. Peter Van Lieshout got the ball rolling in regards to her second visit to IMG in November 2017 and, with additional help from Thomas Neuert (former director of tennis at the Ritz), things fell into place from there.”

Jade’s coaches have always remarked on her strong work ethic. “When it comes to my education and tennis, I always try to be the hardest worker at school and on the court,” Jade said. “I arrive early, make sure I have everything I need for class and practice, and I listen to the teachers and coaches. I have a passion for learning and tennis, as well as a competitive spirit and a positive attitude. As it turns out, these are the qualities the IMG coaches are looking for in their student-athletes. So it turns out to be a win-win for me and IMG.”

She added, “Being at IMG shows that Cayman has good coaching and if you work hard and play all the tournaments available, and also arrange as many matches as possible, then you can get good enough to achieve greater things. So, me being at IMG means a lot for Cayman tennis. It shows that even though Cayman is small, anything is possible.”

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