Written by Matt Wixon
Wixon: Rory Samuels of Frisco is a tennis rookie, but his passion for the game has led him to Ivan Lendl’s academy
Rory Samuels is 17 years old, an age when many tennis stars with professional aspirations have been honing their skills for a decade. But Samuels didn’t pick up a racket until a little more than four years ago.
“I really improved quickly,” he said, “because I never got off the court.”
For the former soccer player from Frisco, the game became a passion that led him to Hilton Head Island in South Carolina, where he’s spending the school year training at a tennis academy directed by Ivan Lendl.
“When he first walked up to me, I was stuttering and shaking,” Samuels said. “It was kind of nerve-racking to meet someone who was No. 1 in the world.”
Lendl, who was ranked No. 1 in the world for more than five years in the 1980s, coaches current pro Andy Murray, winner of the 2012 U.S. Open. Coaching Murray keeps Lendl away from the academy much of the time, but Samuels is there every day, working on his game.
Samuels attended Prestonwood Christian for two years before leaving in August for the International Junior Tennis Academy. The self-described “aggressive baseliner” said the academy has improved all facets of his game, and especially his backhand and mental approach.
Samuels lives in a large apartment with five roommates who are part of the academy’s residence program. He takes high school classes online and devotes about six hours each weekday to tennis. Weekends often include competition in tournaments.
“It’s a commitment,” said Rob Castorri, a former pro player who is the academy’s executive director. “It’s like college. Sometimes it’s even more of a commitment than college.”
But even after a long day of tennis, Samuels isn’t ready to quit.
“Sometimes you have to peel him off the court,” Castorri said.
That doesn’t surprise Samuels’ mother, Colleen Samuels. When Rory practiced at Lakes Tennis Academy in Frisco, she called him the mailman “because he was always out there.”
Samuels’ father, Marc, was a star junior player in South Africa who earned a tennis scholarship to UNT. But the love of tennis didn’t get handed down from father to son until Marc Samuels, founder of Marc Samuels Jewelers stores in Frisco and Grapevine, suffered a stroke in June of 2008.
The stroke left Samuels unable to speak or write, and he now communicates with gestures, Colleen Samuels said. He continues to undergo extensive rehabilitation.
As Rory dealt with his emotions after the stroke, he decided to try tennis.
“It was just kind of an escape,” he said. “It turned out to be a passion.”
Rory’s only sibling is his older sister, Ariel, who graduated from Prestonwood Christian and now attends college in California. Colleen Samuels expected to have Rory at home through high school, but she knows how much the academy training means to him.
For more than a year, she and Rory looked into residential tennis academies, but they were too expensive. Colleen Samuels, a stay-at-home mom before her husband’s stroke, now works as a maître d' at Kenny’s Wood Fired Grill in Dallas. Marc Samuels cannot work and rehabilitation is expensive.
Lendl’s academy, which charges $34,900 per year for the residency program, offered enough financial aid to get Rory enrolled. Castorri said Samuels has become one of the program’s role models, and his intense work ethic gives him a chance to play professionally after a few years of development in college.
For now, Samuels’ development is at a place more than 1,000 miles from home. He’ll spend some time in Frisco during the summer, but he plans to return to Lendl’s academy for his senior year.
“I kind of feel like this is my home away from home,” he said. “I miss friends and family all the time, but it’s definitely worth it for the tennis here.”
Follow Matt Wixon on Twitter @mattwixon.