By Fernando Shan
International tennis teens are seeking out the U.S. tennis scene and college recruiters have an “A” list of players they want – players such as Georgia Gulin.
Gulin, a 19-year-old Brazilian standout, is a sophomore athlete on the women’s tennis team at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her career covers several tennis academy experiences, including two prestigious tennis camps, the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, and the Mouratoglou Tennis Academy in France, before attending college in California. Gulin spent her freshman year at Long Beach State University prior to transferring to Chicago last year.
“Both of my parents played tennis. They understand tennis,” Gulin said. “In Brazil, the level is not as good as the level in the United States and Europe. They wanted me to get better. The best way for me to get better was to go to other places. That’s why they supported me.”
Gulin’s parents paid for those two overseas trips. Gulin started moving her tennis career abroad in 2013. The first destination for her in the United States was Nunez Tennis Training in Aventura, Florida. Though it was not a well-known tennis training club, Gulin preferred her life there to the experience later at the IMG Academy.
“The head coach there would give me a lot of attention. He helped me a lot in my game,” Gulin said. “There were not a lot of players on the team, but all of them were really good. I trained only with guys, which helped my game a lot.”
By contrast, the experience in the IMG Academy was more about expanding the young Brazilian’s horizons. During the school break in Miami, Gulin and her mother decided to start a new adventure, which was the two-week tennis camp at the IMG Academy.
Besides financial support, Gulin’s mother quit her job to travel with her daughter for the 2013 training, when the young player was only 13 years old. Parents were not allowed to live with players during the program, though.
“I was staying in the place with other athletes. My mom was staying at the hotel, but she was with me,” Gulin said.
That forced Gulin to step outside her comfort zone quickly. She started getting used to the life after the first practice with other girls at the IMG Academy.
“After that practice, I figured out that I would actually like to hit with the girls with good practices. I realized that I was not that worse than them. We were at the same level,” Gulin said.
“I was nervous,” Gulin said. “It was crazy because the place was huge there. Tennis players were everywhere from all over the world.”
“Oh my god, I was a 13-year-old tennis player from Brazil. What was I doing here? Why was I here? These people were too good.”
However, with numerous global players in the IMG Academy training camp, the coaches there could not focus on every single player consistently and individually.
“If you were good, you might become a professional. They paid attention to you. You were treated like a star,” Gulin said. “I like the structure there, but not the training itself.”
“It was more like quantity over quality.”
With the passion on tennis and the support from her parents, Gulin travelled around the world to watch world-class tournaments, including the 2015 French Open, also known as Roland Garros, and train in different tennis academies.
The Roland Garros journey took Gulin to another notable tennis academy, the Mouratoglou Tennis Academy in France, which is founded by Patrick Mouratoglou, the current coach of Serena Williams.
“Mouratoglou Tennis Academy was ten thousand times better than the IMG Academy. It was the best place I’ve ever trained,” Gulin said.
The Mouratoglou Tennis Academy attracts many European prospects to practice there every year. As the rare girl from South America, Gulin appreciated her one-month experience in France even though she faced language barriers there.
Some young French players could not speak English. When Gulin played some tournaments there, French players would get mad when Gulin spoke English on the court.
“It was funny there,” Gulin said. “I was playing a girl on the hard court. She was cheating on me. I started talking to her in English and arguing with her. She started talking in French with me. And I started talking Portuguese with her. There’s nothing I could do.”
Gulin had the most intensive daily timetable ever in her life at the Mouratoglou Tennis Academy. She got up at 6 a.m. every day and then had a two-hour ball-hitting session and 90-minute fitness session. After lunch, she repeated the same routine in the afternoon.
“We trained seven hours a day. I had never trained more than that,” Gulin said. “Every coach wanted to make you better. They would give you tips and help you during your game as well as the fitness training session.”
“I remember when we were doing a basic drill, which was hitting cross courts with girls,” she said. “The coach recorded our footwork and then he showed me how that girl moved her feet and how I moved my feet. This comparison showed me she was moving much better. I didn’t notice until the coach showed me the video.”
With the worldwide experience, Gulin started playing in the International Tennis Federation junior tour when she was 15. She was ranked No. 2 in Brazil’s U16 category. In 2016, Gulin also represented Brazil, winning two medals in the World Gymnasiade in Turkey.
“One of my dreams was representing Brazil and then getting the outfit with the Brazilian flag. It was a dream come true,” Gulin said.
However, in the middle her first year on the ITF tour, Gulin made the decision to come to college. Some Brazilian agencies talked with Gulin and her parents about the potential professional career, but Gulin understood her level and how hard it would be after turning professional.
“I knew all my results in ITF were what I was going to show to my college coach. That’s why I played so many ITF tournaments, so I could show my rankings to coaches,” Gulin said.
Gulin was recruited by Shannon Tully, the head coach of University of Illinois at Chicago women’s tennis team in 2018. The recruiting process of a transferred student athlete was not long.
“When I was recruiting her, she was very thorough,” Tully said. “She was a thinker before I brought her in. She asked a lot of questions to gather as much information as she could.”
Those who want to combine education with a tennis career like to choose the college system in the United States rather than being a full-time player in an academy tennis program.
The paths to tennis scholarships in college for international students are various. Training in worldwide tennis programs and playing in the International Tennis Federation junior circuit are common for international players in recent years.
From her hometown Brazil to the Nunez Tennis Training facility in Miami to the IMG Academy in Bradenton to the Mouratoglou Academy in France — Gulin has persevered on her journey to the Chicago tennis spotlight.