They come from diverse backgrounds and levels of experience, but Cayman’s tennis players at the Island Games are all coalescing around a common goal: Getting the best of their ability.
Cayman’s eight players will be looking to stand out and return to the podium for the first time since 2011, when Cayman won the gold in the men’s team event. Cayman took gold in men’s singles three times in a row, with Eduardo Torres (2007 and 2009) and Panav Jha (2011) doing the honours.
The women’s team will consist of Jade Wilkinson, Willow Wilkinson, Lauren Fullerton and Ilona Groark, while Daniel Reid, Berno de Villiers, Callum Theaker and Jake Booker will represent the men.
Jade Wilkinson, a graduate of IMG Academy in Florida, started playing tennis at age seven at the Cayman Islands Tennis Club and will play for Vassar College in New York in the fall.
“To me, tennis is a break from everything else,” said Wilkinson, who received a Dart Minds Inspired Scholarship when he was in Year 9. “I step out and away from everything and I focus only on the game and whether I win or lose, it’s all on me. You only have yourself when you’re on the court.”
Willow Wilkinson, Jade’s younger sister, is one of the youngest players on the team at age 14. She began playing at 8, and she plays six or seven times a week to round out her game.
Eventually, she hopes to be able to play in college just like her sister.
“I’m very grateful to have been chosen to represent the Cayman Islands at my age,” she said. “I hope that in going to compete I will gain good experience of what it’s like to play for my country, and I will enjoy being part of the team. I hope that in the years to come I will continue to represent Cayman.”
Reid, 20, who started playing tennis at age 5, coaches at the Cayman Islands Tennis Club when he’s on island. Right now, he’s playing for McGill University in Canada, and he dreams of being able to win nationals on the Canadian university circuit before he graduates.
“The Island Games is an amazing week and I always look forward to meeting people from all over the world and people that I’ve seen at previous tournaments,” said Reid of the upcoming tournament. “It’s also an amazing opportunity to represent Cayman in a sport that I’ve always enjoyed.”
De Villiers, 27, played most of his tennis while growing up in South Africa, and he estimates that he’s played somewhere in the region of 100 to 125 tournaments over the course of his life. He’s excited to compete against people from around the world and honoured to be able to represent Cayman.
Theaker, 18, is currently training at Tough Tennis Academy in Florida, where he plays six days a week and trains for five hours a day. He’s been able to play tennis all over the world thus far in his young career, and he hopes to be able to earn a scholarship at a Division I school in the United States.
“I think it’s a great opportunity, not only for me, but for everyone going to be able to play for Cayman and play in these games,” he said. “We come from a small community and opportunities like this don’t come too often, so everyone should put it all into every match and embrace the environment.”
Groark, the team’s elder statesman, was born in 1982, and works as a senior associate at Ogier. Groark generally plays three times a week but has been ramping up in anticipation of the Island Games.
She has played International Tennis Federation Seniors events in Europe, Jamaica and the United States.
“I can’t wait to go to the Games,” she said. “It has been such a great experience training with the squad, and it will be a huge honour to represent the Cayman Islands. I hear the Island Games are always a lot of fun, and I am looking forward to the opportunity to compete against the other nations and hopefully make a few friends along the way.”
Fullerton will turn 16 right before competition at the Island Games begins, and she’s been honing her game for a decade. She loves tennis because it’s fun and great exercise, and she hopes to one day play at a North American university and major in a sports-related field like sports medicine.
“I am so excited to compete against the other tennis players in this event and also interested to see how my ability compares against the other players,” she said. “I’m really enjoying the additional team training/coaching with the older and more experienced players. The team atmosphere is great because of the competition, support and encouragement. I’m just looking forward to the whole experience.”
Booker, 14, plays tennis six days a week and hopes to one day play on the international tour.
He has already played in more than 20 tournaments at this point in his young career, and he’s excited to represent Cayman on an international stage and test his skill against quality opponents.
“It’s fast-paced and competitive, and there’s always something to learn,” he said of tennis. “It’s also amazing to meet people from all over the world who all play the same game.”