When 15-year-old Katie Swan was all of 7, she took tennis lessons while vacationing in Portugal with her family.
The lessons were meant to be a fun moment on vacation, but it changed her life.
“She had a few lessons and (the teacher) used to play for Portugal, and he told us, ‘She’s going to be a professional tennis player,’” said Swan’s mother, Nicki. “Oh, that’s hilarious. He said, ‘I promise you.’ We gave her proper lessons, and it went from there.
Swan is ranked No. 74 among girls players by the International Tennis Federation and will play in the junior division of two Grand Slams, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, as well as the junior Fed Cup. She will also play doubles at Wimbledon with American CC Bellis, who is ranked No. 12.
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Swan, whose family moved from England to Wichita last year, was not ranked at all in 2013 when she started working with Collin Foster, Wichita State women’s coach, and Rex Coad, head professional at Wichita Country Club. She played her first international event in March 2013.
Coad attributed the quick improvement to Swan’s addition of a quality midrange game, a more precise serve and maturation, along with her hand-eye coordination, strength and athleticism. She also has a dominating serve and forehand.
“Katie’s a pretty unique young lady,” Coad said. “She’s got a combination of extraordinary physical attributes, but she also has the ability to handle the mental and competitive challenges that go with playing at this level.
“Her serve and forehand are her big weapons,” Coad said. “But she’s also really good at shifting from a position of offense to one of defense when it’s appropriate. Most don’t make that change and they don’t get the balance.”
Swan, a freshman at Collegiate, recently returned from two tournaments in California. Swan, who plays with the British national team. has also played in tournaments in England and South Africa over the past year.
“I think I’ve missed seven school weeks,” she said. “(Collegiate) has been real supportive. When I’m gone they e-mail me notes and homework. When I come back, they are helpful with what I need to do. I try to focus as much as I can on tennis, but sometimes I don’t want to study. If I don’t, I’ll fall really far behind.”
But keeping her in school and in a somewhat normal lifestyle is important to the Swans.
“She’s one of the very few players on the competitive circuit who is still in school, and we’re working to keep it like that,” Nicki Swan said. “We really like her having what we think is a balanced lifestyle. It keeps her grounded. We like the structure of school. … Katie went to homecoming, went to Sadie Hawkins.
“I don’t know realistically if she can graduate, that might get too difficult. But in the here and now, she’s 15 and achieving this along with a completely normal lifestyle while she’s here in Wichita.”
Katie Swan plays six days a week, for two or three hours a day.
She’s highly competitive — even in pop-a-shot basketball and ping-pong games with her brother, Luke. Swan recently took off 10 days from tennis to get over a bout of shin splints, but it was difficult to stay off the court.
“Our challenge is getting her to rest,” Nicki Swan said. “She couldn’t wait to get back on the court.”
Katie Swan’s goal is to play professional tennis. But she also is considering playing a season for Collegiate, as well as playing in college.
She had planned to play for Collegiate last fall, but chose not to once she discovered she couldn’t play in outside tournaments during the high school season.
“But this year I have such a busy summer that we’re thinking it might be nice to relax and play high school tennis for a season, to take some time off from really intense tournaments,” she said.
As for college, Swan said, “I definitely want to keep college as an option. You hear about so many more people who play tennis all the way through college and go pro after. There’s top colleges like Stanford, UCLA, USC, who all have really strong tennis teams, who have girls who are good enough to be pros.”
Swan’s future is bright and Coad emphasized that it has just to do with her natural skill in tandem with her willingness to work and improve.
Swan works with trainers who focus specifically on tennis skills — footwork speed, shoulder strength, key muscle groups — all designed to make her better on the court.
“Her parents are actively involved in the process in an remarkably positive way,” Coad said. “They’ve found the people to work with her that can bring her the tools that she needs, if she’s willing to put them all together.
“… She’s unique in that she not only has the gifts athletically, but she’s taking what she has and is so focused and has surrounded herself with a support group to absolutely maximize those skills. On top of that, she’s extraordinarily eager and hungry and malleable. She can take what’s given to her and she has the determination and the ability to make the theory into something that is applied.
“At the end of the day, it’s pretty special.”