BY JAKE KRZECZOWSKI | OCTOBER 15, 2009 7:20 AM
In college sports, physical skills and talent aren’t enough.
And Iowa sophomore tennis player Chris Speer is a model specimen of hard work and determination.
As a youngster growing up in suburban Chicago, he first picked up a racket at the age of 5. That was all it took for him to fall in love with the sport.
His parents immediately enrolled him in the Care Academy, a tennis club specializing in grooming young talent in the Chicagoland area.
Attending the prestigious tennis academy became a daily routine for Speer, who began playing national tournaments as a 12-year-old. And before he could blow out 13th-birthday candles, the kid who picked up a tennis racket as a hobby eventually found himself nationally ranked in the top 10 for his age group.
Speer played in tournaments all over the country almost every weekend.
“I almost spent more time with my coaches than my parents,” he said. “They had to work, so I would go with my coaches to the tournaments.”
By the time he was in high school, the phenom started to hit some bumps in the road. Injuries set him back during his first two years of high school at Stevenson in Lincolnshire, Ill., and he experienced a scare in his junior year when he had trouble with a rotator cuff.
But he made it through all the setbacks, and in his senior year he helped deliver Stevenson, one of the more illustrious schools in Illinois, the state runner-up trophy en route to the best men’s tennis season the school had ever seen.
“Everyone came to the games,” Speer said. “Students, teachers — everyone.”
His final prep season wrapped up, it was time to take his game to the college level. Again he returned to the Care Academy, where his coach had set up a match for him to show his stuff for Iowa head coach Steve Houghton.
Houghton liked what he saw and offered Speer a spot on the team, and he committed in late June before his freshman year.
It didn’t take long for the young tennis star to figure out he was in a whole new game.
“I didn’t get to play, but I learned a lot, cheered our guys on,” he said. “I know that if I work hard enough I’ll get my chance to get in there and play.”
Playing in only one event last season, he poured himself into the training regimen assistant coach Steve Nash laid out for him.
He has been looking to challenge matches to work his way up the roster after being left home this past weekend.
It is easy to see his determination; each hit in practice looks as if he is putting all those years of training behind it — the long hours, hotel rooms, and plane rides all bubbling to the surface before the ball returns to the other side of the net.
Houghton, a former Hawkeye tennis player who entered into the lineup his first day on campus, looks at the way players get through rough spots as a sense of their character.
“How are you going to handle diversity?” the coach said. “These are kids who never sat on the bench in high school, so a lot of the success is based on their perseverance.”
Last weekend, Speer stayed in Iowa City while four other Iowa players traveled to the Purdue Invitational. But he has remained undeterred.
“I’m real motivated to get better and show people who I am,” Speer said.