Sanford's Options: North Carolina or Pro Tennis
by Colette Lewis
, 17 February 2017
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Blue Chip Alexandra Sanford decided long ago the school she wants to attend, committing to the University of North Carolina in the fall of her sophomore year. Now the 18-year-old from Westerville Ohio has another choice to make - joining the Tar Heels this fall or pursuing professional tennis.
Sanford, No. 3 in Tennis Recruiting Network's class of 2017, ultimately has one goal: playing professionally. As an amateur, she already has had success on the USTA Pro Circuit, most notably at the indoor courts of the $100,000 Dow Tennis Classic in Midland Michigan, where she reached the quarterfinals last year as a qualifier and again qualified for the main draw earlier this month.
Now 684 in the WTA rankings and 54 in the ITF junior rankings, after previously reaching highs of 517 and 16 respectively, Sanford was initially planning to start at North Carolina last fall. But a year ago she began to rethink that timetable.
"Last year in January I started working with [USTA National Coach] Henner Nehles," said Sanford, the 2016 Easter Bowl champion. "Around April or May, I made the decision with him and also talked with Brian Kalbas, UNC's coach and Courtney [Nagle, assistant coach] about the situation. I felt like I wanted to go back to my original graduation date, to give myself a year to keep doing what I'm doing and play."
Sanford, who cites math as her favorite subject, is completing her academic requirements through an online program at Olentangy Orange High School.
"I'm only taking two classes, and then I'll be done," Sanford said. "Schooling was not the issue; I could have finished last spring, but I just chose to pause one of my classes and take a couple extra ones."
As she weighs the pros and cons of college, Sanford needs to look no further than her own family for pertinent information: her sister Anna is a junior on the Ohio State team.
"Obviously since she went to school, she's an advocate for going to college," Sanford said. "She just tells me how everything works, the opportunities they give you, both in academics and fitness wise, off-court training, obviously on-court training, with everything centered around the goals that you have. They make it a really good work environment, for not only tennis, but academics too."
Sanford now trains and travels primarily with USTA Player Development coaches, but when she returns home to Ohio, she makes a point to reconnect with her sister, a behavioral neuroscience major.
"When I'm home I get to see her a good amount and I live 20 minutes from Ohio State, so we always make an effort to meet up and go to lunch or something," Sanford said.
When Allie was a freshman and Anna a senior at Olentangy Orange, the sisters won the 2013 Division I state title in doubles.
"It was a blast," Sanford said. "Definitely one of the best memories I have in the sport so far. That was the first time I had really played on a team for more than one tournament, so it showed me another side to the sport, and I thought it was pretty fun."
Sanford recognizes that playing college tennis would not mean an end to her hopes for a professional career, with former collegiate stars Irina Falconi, Nicole Gibbs and most recently, Jennifer Brady, having success on the WTA Tour.
"It's great seeing some of those girls that went to college make it, especially Jenny this year at the Australian Open," Sanford said. "It was awesome. It shows me that you can do both."
Sanford has been thinking about a career in professional tennis for many years, although she doesn't recall any particular win or tournament that sent her in that direction.
"You always kind of dream about it when you play a sport, and I've done that since I was little," said Sanford, who took up tennis when she was just three years old. "I didn't really start buying in all the way until probably about two or three years ago. That's when I started online schooling, playing in the bigger tournaments and training a lot harder than I used to."
Sanford worked for over a decade with Doug DiRosario, and prior to her recent training with the USTA, she also sought to develop her game with the assistance of a noted member of the Ohio State coaching fraternity.
"The last five or six years, I've worked with Ty Tucker, the men's coach at Ohio State," Sanford said. "Because I live so close to the university, everything is good with the NCAA rules and all that stuff. He gets on the court, and I love working with him. I like the intensity and he'll get the most out of you, but you can still enjoy being on court. He makes me laugh."
Tucker, who has built one of the nation's top Division I programs during his 18 years in Columbus, believes an optimal training environment includes fun.
"You're not going to get the most out of anybody if they don't enjoy the time with you on the court, if you don't make the learning and the hard work fun," Tucker said. "If you're not having fun with the racquet in your hand, you're not going to get better."
Tucker is confident Sanford has the commitment to improve and a game that will have an immediate impact in college if she chooses that route.
"I've never been her full-time coach or anything, but I have nothing but great things to say about Allie," Tucker said. "Her work ethic, and I think she has the size, the power, the strength. She's got to keep improving on the weaknesses, but I see someone who wants to do it."
Sanford, who names Wimbledon and the US Open as her favorite junior tournaments, is unsure whether she will play ITF junior events this year, her last year of eligibility. Instead she will concentrate on the upcoming $25,000 USTA Pro Circuit events, with an eye toward getting her WTA ranking high enough to make turning pro a viable option.
"A specific ranking and results are definitely the biggest factor for me in order to justify not going to college," said Sanford, who also mentioned competing in the BNP Paribas prequalifying at Indian Wells in the next few weeks. "It would probably be top 200 at the least, ideally top 150, so it's a pretty tough goal to meet, but we'll see."
Sanford admits her lofty goals can be a source of stress, a mindset she is trying to overcome.
"I still put a lot of pressure on myself and I'm trying to work on not doing that so much," Sanford said. "Even though there's two great options on the table, I still have my goals and I still put pressure on myself to meet those goals."
As her dream of playing professional tennis moves closer to reality, Sanford has identified two elite pros to serve as inspirations.
"Obviously Federer is the ultimate role model, just the way he carries himself and represents himself," Sanford said. "But as for a game style, or something like that, Victoria Azarenka would be my tennis role model."
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About Colette Lewis
has covered topflight U.S. and international junior
events as a freelance journalist for over a decade.
Her work has appeared in Tennis
magazine, the Tennis
magazine and the US Open program, and she
provides monthly content for USTA Florida. Lewis is active on
and she writes a weekly column right here at TennisRecruiting.net.
She was named
Junior Tennis Champion
for 2016 by Tennis Industry Magazine.
Lewis, based out of Kalamazoo, Michigan, has seen every National
Championship final played since 1977, and her work on the
tournament's ustaboys.com website
led her to establish
where she comments on junior and college tennis daily.