Ajeet Rai's burgeoning tennis career continues to gather momentum and further overseas opportunities beckon for the gifted young Taranaki teenager.
The New Plymouth Boys' High School 14-year-old returned recently from a three-month stint training and playing in events in Europe as a member of Tennis New Zealand's Tour of Europe for elite age-group athletes.
Rai seized the opportunity to hone his skills on clay courts at tournaments in Holland, Denmark and Sweden. The trip finished on a high when he won an open tournament in Amsterdam against an opponent 10 years his senior.
"Things came together for me there and I played very good tennis," Rai said.
Rai's tour extended beyond the New Zealand team development programme when he was invited by retired Swedish professional Magnus Norman to play in a tournament on Stockholm.
The teenager spent two weeks in Sweden training and playing with the Magnus Norman Academy. His training partner there was the No 1 Swedish under-14 rep.
The stay in Sweden unfortunately ended abruptly after news was received that Ajeet's grandfather, Bill Rai, who lives in Stratford, was seriously ill.
Sadly, Bill died just days after Ajeet and his father Rakesh returned to New Plymouth.
On top of the coaching from New Zealand high performance tennis coaches Marcel Voss and Lan Bale, Ajeet played in five tournaments in Europe playing 13 matches and winning eight.
Rai considers he made significant improvements to his game through his first European experience.
"I'm a lot stronger and quicker around the court because all the weaknesses you have are amplified playing on clay. It's like playing on gravel. You have to be so light-footed," he said.
"My mental game is also a lot stronger too. In my head, I feel I can cope with the pressure a lot better now. I seem to be able to control it. I don't let the pressure get to me any more."
Rai demonstrated this at the end of the European stay when snatching victory from the jaws of defeat in the final tournament he played in Holland.
After losing a first set tiebreak 7-0, Rai hit back to win the second 6-2 and was up 5-4 in the third when his opponent had break point chances and he came back to win playing three solid points.
"I could never do that before. That's the kind of improvement I made over there," he said.
Rai has a hectic schedule ahead, starting with ITF under-18 tournaments in Hamilton and Auckland this month.
Then it's time to pack his bags for another stint overseas.
"I'm either going back to Europe or straight to the Bollettieri Academy in Florida. It depends on what Dad says," said the national under-14 rep.
In Florida, the plan is to play in three major age-group tournaments.
Rai spent three months last year at the Bollettieri Academy and found the experience an important learning curve, so was keen to return. His goal at home this coming season is to make the junior Davis Cup team to play in Korea next year.
A year 10 pupil, Rai works with a correspondence teacher while playing overseas. .
"I've got an on-line teacher and I'm really enjoying studying at the moment because the stuff I'm doing is interesting," he said.
Back at school in New Plymouth last week, Rai was again in winning form on the court when he successfully defended both the junior and senior titles.
He beat Pukekura Soffe Cup player and year 13 student Jamie Simpson in the final of the senior competition.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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