Sunday, September 8, 2013

Academy makes waves with two national champs

Collin Altamirano, right, and Jenson Brooksby, left, won Super-
national titles last month under coach Joseph Gilbert, middle.
Photos by Paul Bauman
   SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- In the late 1960s and the 1970s, taskmaster Sherm Chavoor churned out Olympic swimming champions at the Arden Hills Swimming and Tennis Club.
   Mark Spitz won nine gold medals and Debbie Meyer and Mike Burton three each. Spitz's seven gold medals in the 1972 Munich Olympics stood as the record until Michael Phelps broke it with eight in the 2008 Beijing Games.
   In all, disciples of the irascible Chavoor won 31 Olympic medals, including 20 gold, and set 83 world records and 131 American marks.
   Forty-one years after the peak of Chavoor's success, another disciplinarian could be starting a tennis dynasty at what is now the Arden Hills Resort and Spa. Training under Joseph Gilbert at his JMG Tennis Academy, Collin Altamirano and Jenson (J.T.) Brooksby won their first USTA Supernational titles on back-to-back days last month.
   Altamirano, 17, became the first unseeded player in the 71-year history of the USTA Boys 18 National Championships in Kalamazoo, Mich., to capture the title. Past winners include International Tennis Hall of Famers Michael Chang, Stan Smith and Dennis Ralston.
   Brooksby, 12, justified his No. 1 seeding by winning the USTA Boys 12 National Championships in Little Rock, Ark.
   "A lot of kids fly to Florida, fly to Southern Cal, fly all over the nation looking for the best training," said the 35-year-old Gilbert, who opened the academy in January 2011. "This shows we can do it here. That was a goal of mine, to show, look, we can create players at the top national level right here in Sacramento. There was no reason why we couldn't before. That's why I broke off and did my own academy."   
   Another Sacramento teaching pro, however, was stunned that two players from California's sleepy capital, not to mention one club, won titles in the most prestigious age-group tournaments for Americans.
   "It's unbelievable. It's unfathomable," marveled the pro, who requested anonymity. "That happens in Florida and Southern California. People laugh at Northern California tennis. It's like a dream coming out of little cowtown Sacramento."
    By winning the 18 Supernationals, Altamirano earned an automatic wild card into the main draw of the U.S. Open, in which he lost to 22nd-seeded Philipp Kohlschreiber of Germany 6-1, 6-3, 6-1 in the first round.
   "Gilbert is the only coach in the area who could have taken (Altamirano) to the U.S. Open," said the teaching pro.
   Other top juniors at the JMG Tennis Academy are Brandon Sutter (boys 18s), Kassidy Jump (girls 18s), Ravi Nelson (boys 12s) and Jessi Muljat (girls 12s). Sutter and Jump are freshmen at Stanford and Arizona State, respectively, of the powerful Pacific-12 Conference.
   JMG, the teaching pro predicted, "will be one of the premier academies on the West Coast, like (Nick) Bollettieri's in Florida."
Sacramento's Arden Hills, founded in 1954, has morphed
from a modest club into a swanky facility.
   Arden Hills, founded by Chavoor in 1954, was very utilitarian in his day. It had a handful of courts and pools, and a modest clubhouse.
   Since then, Arden Hills has morphed into a swanky facility that bills itself as "Sacramento's Luxury Hotel, Wedding, Spa and Wellness Resort." It features 12 immaculate courts, four pools, a 50,000-foot health and wellness pavilion, an opulent five-room bed and breakfast, and even a hair salon. Academy players have access to top fitness trainers, nutritionists and sports psychologists.
   Chavoor sold Arden Hills in the mid-1980s, retired in 1990 and died of cancer at 73 in 1992. Now along comes Gilbert.
   "He's been my coach pretty much my whole life," said Altamirano. "He made my game very good and made me tough. He's the reason I'm here today, the reason I won that tournament."
   Brooksby gives Gilbert almost as much credit.
   "Joseph has really helped me mentally and game-wise," Brooksby said, "and I finally brought it out there for that whole tournament. I was doing it throughout every match back to back. I was staying calm and not getting upset."
   It hasn't been easy for Altamirano, who reached the junior boys quarterfinals at the U.S. Open this week, and Brooksby.
   "Joseph is almost paramilitaristic in the way he teaches," the teaching pro said. "You've got to have kids who are kind of like robots. He takes the wimp out of them. Whine, and he's going to make you run more. Eventually, you're not going to whine anymore. Collin was a brat on the court for many years, and (Gilbert) got that out of him.
   "It's a very good balance. Joseph has a harmonious relationship with his players, but at the same time, he's a ballbuster. Joseph has a talent with that."
* * *
   Gilbert and four other pros work with 25 to 30 serious players at the academy.
   "(Altamirano and Brooksby) got where they are because of their dedication," said Gilbert, who's not related to renowned coach and commentator Brad Gilbert. "We're not looking for huge numbers. We're looking for dedication."
   Gilbert personally tutors about half of the players, starting his day at 7 or 8 a.m. and finishing at 8:30 p.m.
   "I push; I'm tough," he admitted. "But they show up every day. They want it, which is great to see."
   The program is tailored to the player, and Gilbert declined to specify the range of fees. He has a system, though, emphasizing "a lot of individual time in comparison to most academies. I don't work with a lot of kids. I work with a handful of kids for a lot of hours, and I do believe in that. The philosophy is less kids, more hours.
   "I have extremely strong relationships with (Altamirano and Brooksby) because I've spent so much time with them. I've traveled with them, and Collin has lived with me, so that individual component of how much time we've spent together has made a huge difference."
   Altamirano said Gilbert has helped him "in so many ways, in life, just in general, how to be a good person, just a good kid. That was probably the most helpful thing, not even the tennis game, just being a smart individual and being able to take care of myself.
   "He trusts me to travel on my own. That was a big thing for him and me, too, because obviously it's not easy to do. It's tough to stay to a schedule when you're on your own and you can do whatever you want and there's no one there to help you."
Altamirano, 17, has a punishing forehand.
   Altamirano lived with Gilbert for five years until the coach and his wife had a baby six weeks ago. 
   "Him living with me was a big part to show how to discipline himself, like he was talking about traveling on his own," Gilbert said. "When he was younger, he had to set up a schedule on his own. I checked in on him, and if the schedule wasn't done right, he would get disciplined for it. If it was done right, he'd get rewards for it.
   "I definitely do believe in these guys being independent. I'm trying to get J.T. to start making more decisions on his own because that's how you prepare a professional, in my opinion. On the tennis court, you're out there on your own. There are no coaches, there's no help, so when you get out there, you need to be self-sufficient. Training these guys to do that is a lot of life lessons. Some of them are tough, but they've done a good job."
   Gilbert also likes to keep his players fresh.
   "I don't believe in an extreme amount of tournaments," he said. "I like players to enjoy a victory or grieve a loss. Giving them a certain amount of time to do that is important. If you go tournament after tournament after tournament, which a lot of players do, I think it becomes kind of mind-numbing whether you lose or win. It's not as much of a rush to play a tournament.
   "With both these guys, I've limited tournaments quite a bit. J.T. last year took off two or three months (from tournaments). Same with Collin throughout his years with me. We've taken off three or four months at a time to work on things mentally or in his game or just to give him a fresh start at playing tournaments again."
   Gilbert added that he "has noticed over the years that when (juniors) took a big break from tournaments, they have their best result the very next tournament they played. A lot of people would think the opposite, like, 'Oh, they're not tournament tough.' But every time they took two to three months of a break from tournaments, their very next tournament was a great result."
   Gilbert was born in Louisiana but grew up in Southern California After an impressive junior career, he played at Boise State for two years as the Broncos reached No. 2 in the nation, Fresno State for one year and Sacramento State for one year.        
   Gilbert said he left Boise State because his coach, Greg Patton, accepted a position with the United States Tennis Association and Gilbert's father died.
   "I had friends at Fresno State, and it was near Southern California," Gilbert explained. After a year, I was not a huge fan of Fresno. I liked the school and the team. I was a little burned out."
   Gilbert -- who had lived in Sacramento as a teenager with his coach, Paul Hubbard -- then enrolled at Sacramento State. After completing his eligibility, Gilbert taught at the Rio del Oro Racquet Club in Sacramento for 10 years before starting his academy. JMG stands for Joseph Morris Gilbert.
   Gilbert learned much of his system from Hubbard, who died in a car accident 10 years ago at 31.
   "Training national-level kids takes a lot of time," Gilbert observed. "There's only so many kids you can work with. Paul opened my mind to that individual training philosophy ... the relationship, the trust, spending so much time together.
   "Paul by the end of it could tell me to 'sit on the bench and look at the stars (in the sky) -- that''ll make you better,' and I kind of believed him. I feel like we're getting to a point with these two that they believe in what I'm preaching to them. They trust me."
* * * 
   Sitting at an indoor cafe table at Arden Hills after returning from the Supernationals, Altamirano and Brooksby contrasted sharply. Altamirano, 6-foot-2, resembles a teen idol with his piercing eyes and dark, flowing hair. Brooksby, 5-foot-3, looks like a mini-surfer dude with his blond, flowing hair and puka shell necklace. Both, however, wear braces.
   Altamirano and Brooksby also have similar playing styles based on outstanding groundstrokes.
   "I hit a really heavy ball with a lot of spin (on both sides)," Altamirano said. "It really pushes my opponents back, and I'm able to do it over and over and over and over again. I'm very consistent with it. I can hit a ball that gives me a short ball and never miss.
   "I never felt like anyone could out-rally me (in Kalamazoo). They couldn't really attack my ball as long as I hit it clean. It calmed me down, (and) made me loose and have confidence in winning."
   Gilbert agreed, except for the part about never missing.
   "I do see him miss on occasion," Gilbert cracked.
Brooksby, 12, is adept at finding
angles to finish points, Gilbert said.
   Brooksby said his strengths are "basically the same" as Altamirano's.
   "We've been taught really similar. (Hit a) heavy ball that (opponents) can't attack, run them around, move them from side to side. On offense, hit the angles, get them off the court and then finish off the point," Brooksby said.
   Brooksby has a more offensive game than he gets credit for, according to Gilbert.
    "A lot of people think his strength is his defense and getting the ball in play a lot, which it is," Gilbert said. "But in my opinion what sets him apart -- because there's a lot of kids that can do that at his age -- is when he gets (on) offense, he finds the angles that can finish off points a lot easier than other 12-year-olds.
   "Usually, 12-year-olds have a hard time finishing off points because they're not big enough and strong enough to muscle through anybody yet. He knows how to work the court a lot better than most 12-year-olds."
   Altamirano's unseeded status in the nationals was deceiving. He has played primarily in men's professional and open tournaments, limiting his opportunities to earn junior ranking points.
   "My goal was to win (the Supernationals)," Altamirano said. "I knew I could. I've played against higher levels. In the pro events, I've played against guys 200, 300 in the world. I see weaknesses out there. I've seen a bigger ball. Juniors didn't scare me anymore. I was used to it, and it came easier to me."
   Altamirano demolished top-seeded Gage Brymer of Irvine 6-0, 6-1 in the semifinals.
   "I played really well that day," Altamirano explained with a laugh. "His game didn't really fit mine, at all. He wanted to hit hard and blast right through me, and I was perfectly OK with taking a step behind the baseline, hitting heavy and watching him make errors."
   Gilbert taught Altamirano's mother, Anne, and stepfather, Wes Barber, and Brooksby's parents, Glen and Tania. Collin first picked up a racket at 2 and began playing seriously at 5. Jenson, who also goes by J.T. because his middle name is Tyler, started at 4.
   Altamirano lives with his grandparents in the Sacramento suburb of Elk Grove. His father, Frank, resides in Yuba City, 42 miles (68 kilometers) north of Sacramento, and his mother and stepfather live in Santa Barbara in Southern California.
   "My mom was the main (tennis) influence," Altamirano said. "She was a very good player. She wanted me to have big goals in tennis. She got me passionate about it.
   "She's in love with this game. It baffles me how much she loves this game. I go home, and Tennis Channel is running 24-7 at her house. It drives me nuts. She just wants her life to be around tennis."
   Explaining her love of tennis, Anne said Collin "was 1 year old when I got interested, and I got addicted to it. It's a good workout, and it's like a chess match. There's a lot of technique to try to perfect. I love competing, too. I've always been a competitive person."
   Anne made the UC Santa Barbara team at 30 years old but was ruled ineligible before participating in any matches because she had played in community college more than five years beforehand.
   Collin, a home-schooled senior, said he hasn't decided whether to go to college or turn professional.
   "I'm not too worried about it, to be honest with you. I have a year to make that decision," said Altamirano, adding that he has received scholarship offers from reigning NCAA champion Virginia, Illinois, Vanderbilt, Wake Forest and Washington. "This next year is going to be fun, and I'm looking forward to it."
   Brooksby said he defeated his mother, a 4.0 player, 6-0, 6-0 when he was 8 and first topped his father, a 4.5 competitor, at 10.
   "Now I beat my dad 95 percent of the time," crowed Jenson, a home-schooled seventh-grader.
   Glen Brooksby, a Sacramento anesthesiologist, has attended the prestigious BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells for the past 20 years, except one year when he had Achilles' tendinitis. Jenson accompanied him for the first time -- other than when he was 1 or 2 -- last year.
   With Gilbert's help, maybe Altamirano and Brooksby eventually will play in the BNP Paribas Open.  
   "We're such a young academy," he said. "We're only 2 or 3 years old, and we're producing this. Most academies are 25 years old and not having the same results.
   "Give us some time. We're going to keep doing really great things. Maybe people will fly here to train rather than our kids leaving to go other places."

2 comments:

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  2. Awesome Article! Great job on the details!

    My son worked with Joseph when he was at Rio Del Oro and was just the 3rd boy (other than Collin and JT) to survive Joseph's grueling workouts! Joseph at the time only worked with Collin and JT, and was the Jr. Co-ordinater I believe at the time, he also had lots and lots of adult lessons.
    After watching the first couple of lessons Joseph had with my son, we knew why he only had 2 kids!
    Very, very few kids really want to be champions, and most would quit or go back to their previous coach.
    But my son loved it, his game did a complete 180! But the confidence was beyond belief!
    His only regret was that he was already 17 years old when he first switched over to Joseph, but in 1 years’ time, he was beating 90% of the players he never beat before! He had his best 2 years of his Jr. Career and his only regret, He told me was that we didn't find Joseph sooner when my son was maybe 13 or 14. My son stated that he would be top 10, I asked in California? He said no, in the Nation!

    BTW his JR. ranking went from 650 in the Nation to 250 by the time he had to age out of the Jrs. That was an amazing feat! He received numerous college offers a few large schools including some 70 to 80% offers from smaller colleges. These offers would never have come without Joseph’s coaching!

    The confidence Joseph instilled in him, the smart play style, and heavy ball hitting, the angles, was amazing, everyone noticed his 180 improvement, one coach said Joseph was worth his weight in Gold.
    It was soon after that almost every decent player in the Spare time academies wanted to train under Joseph! I won't go into detail, but that was the beginning of the JMG Academy!

    BTW my daughter was the first girl that survived Joseph’s training and in that short time he was at Rio, her game went from never winning a National tournament match, to wining 4 matches at the Prestigious West Coast Nationals, including an upset of the #6 ranked player in the 1st round!
    Her confidence, her patience, her angles, were amazing, what a job he did in less than 3 months!
    Granted she worked her butt off from 7am to 7pm that summer and did everything Joseph told her including playing 3 to 4 sets a day! She survived his grueling workouts and lessons and wow, that tournament was an amazing performance and changed her game forever! It's too bad he had to leave Rio Del Oro. She was devastated because she loves Rio Del Oro! She was able to train with JMG at Rollingwood Racquet Club, before he moved to Arden Hills. When she was training, her game was on fire!

    So for us as Parents, and Joseph knows, my 2 kids were taking lessons from Joseph before JMG Academy was started, and before the avalanche of other kids from Spare time academy wanted to work under Joseph. I think my son was nicknamed the "Godfather" of JMG! Everyone knew about Collin and JT, but the incredible change that Joseph did to my son's game in such a short time, was outstanding, amazing, not enough words to describe it! The kids and Parents that knew my son could not believe it! I believe even Joseph was inspired to possibly start working with more kids and share his great knowledge of coaching! But to stick with his rule of a kid really wanting it, and willing to work as hard as possible to get it. This is why he didn’t have many kids before, most would quit after 1 lesson, and we understood his approach and my son said that type of training is what he always wanted and needed. He could probably write a book about all the positives that he got out of the 2 years with Joseph. His training is not for every kid, but if the kid is willing to work, listen and do exactly as he is instructed, something positive will happen!

    So happy for Joseph, he needs to write a book or two! He has worked so hard to earn this!

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