Emerald Coast Tennis Stars Climb The Pro Ranks

The Will to Win

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South Florida’s reputation as a proving ground for tennis’s biggest stars is well established. The likes of Serena and Venus Williams, Andy Roddick and Maria Sharapova prepared for the sport’s biggest stages by honing their skills at prestigious tennis academies including the Chris Evert, IMG and Rick Macci clubs. But the path to tennis greatness doesn’t always go through Boca Raton or Bradenton. Two hometown junior champions developed their games on the Emerald Coast and have emerged as rising U.S. stars.

Kim Walker Photography


Long-Shot Victory Lands Wil Spencer a Global Ranking

On a brisk fall morning in November 2014, Wil Spencer, 25, stepped onto a clay court at the Bluewater Bay Tennis Center in Niceville for his professional debut. He wore a University of Georgia T-shirt representative of a time when his motivation sputtered and stalled.

Wil Spencer

Kim Walker Photography

His father passed away when he was a 19-year-old college student playing for Texas A&M. He took a year off. He transferred in 2010 to play as a junior for the University of Georgia, where the Santa Rosa Beach native climbed to rank third in the nation as a Division I singles player.

Life as a student-athlete was demanding, but Spencer lacked the sponsor he needed to make a jump to the pros financially feasible. After graduating in 2012 with a degree in international affairs, Spencer stepped off the court. He said his heart was not in the game. He studied abroad for 12 weeks in Oxford, England, then moved to North Carolina to be close to his mom and teach tennis.

“You’ve got to enjoy what you do, whatever it is that gets you motivated,” he said, reflecting on his trials and aspirations. “If you love it, you’ll put in the time because it’s not so much like work.”

On that gusty, cold November morning, Wil Spencer’s broad smile reflected his future. The 5-foot-11, chiseled athlete had the will to win and the courtside support of a hometown crowd. He warmed up for his first match in the main draw of the ITF Men’s Bluewater Bay Pro Circuit $10,000 Futures Championship, held annually at the Bluewater Bay Tennis Center. Coming off of a two-year sabbatical from competitive play, neither Spencer nor the crowd could anticipate the events about to unfold.

Wil Spencer of Santa Rosa Beach grew up on the courts of the Emerald Coast, and now at 26 years old he is ranked 568 in the world.
Kim Walker Photography

“He’s fresh. He’s ready to go,” said Brett Beattie, Spencer’s high-school tennis coach. Over the previous week, Beattie watched Spencer win five consecutive matches to earn a wild-card entry and a match in the main draw against Germany’s Peter Heller, the tournament’s second seed. When the top seed, American Conner Smith, dropped out, Heller, ranked 477th in the world according to the ITF, was the favorite to win, given his ranking and experience.

The Heller-Spencer match featured scores of long rallies, one lasting 22 shots. Momentum shifted back and forth as local fans cheered Spencer on. Then, three hours and 25 minutes after the match began, they rose to their feet. Spencer had scored an upset victory.

“I’m back,” Spencer said. Shaking with adrenaline, he struggled to sign a tennis ball for a young fan. “My tank was about empty; the fans kept me going.”

After a day’s rest, Spencer kept going and kept winning, advancing to a fifth match in the main draw — the finals. And Spencer would win one more, claiming the men’s singles title. He walked off the sun-swept court surrounded by hundreds of supporters. According to the Association of Tennis Professionals, he now ranked No. 568 in the world.

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