QUEEN’S CLUB — “An ace to win Wimbledon or scoring the winning goal for England in a World Cup final?” coach Justin Sherring used to ask his young charge, a talented footballer and tennis player, on the court at practice.
Jack Draper’s answer was always the same: Wimbledon, every time.
Sherring perhaps should not have been so surprised. Draper’s mother Nicky, who had first taught him the basics of the game, was a national champion in her own right and then a tennis coach. His father Roger was head of the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA). There are aunts, uncles and grandparents all with tennis-playing credentials. Getting frustrated watching his chosen team Manchester United was probably the closest he was going to get to professional football.
In hindsight, he made the right choice. At just 20 years old, Draper has had his first taste of the top 100, although his second-round defeat at Queen’s, where he made the quarters last year, means he will drop out of that echelon again on Monday, and is already being talked about as a future grand slam champion.
“I want him to be number one in the world,” Sherring tells i without a hint of doubt that Draper can.
“I’ve had a giggle with him before that it would be nice if he gets to No 1 in the world singles and Joe [Salisbury, whom Sherring currently coaches] has been No 1 in the world doubles, then all my dreams have come true and I can just retire into the sunset.”
Sherring spent 10 years coaching Draper from the age of five to the age of 15, during which time he soared through the age-groups.
“He won a lot,” remembers Sherring, “but all he wanted to do was compete. He’s one of those guys that just thrived on it. He was a win junkie.
“Everything had to be competition. That was perfect because training was based around competition.
“I think if I had drilled him for hours on end he’d have just walked away. The best thing to do with Jack is turn up. ‘Are you ready? Warmed up? Right, let’s go straight in, first to 21 points and then just let the game and let his competitiveness do the work.
“He was one of the few kids that you’d beat him and he’d just say ‘another other one, right now’.
“He is the sort of tennis killer that you’re looking for.”
In fact, the only time that a young Draper hit problems was when he found himself playing kids years older than him in an effort to push himself further.
That competitive spirit remains recognisable on the court, but little else about the Draper game is. His trademarks are a powerful serve and vicious forehand, winning points quickly and clinically, so much so that he even spent some time last year with his team studying at 2021 Wimbledon finalist Matteo Berrettini’s game to see what they could learn from his game identity.
Just five or six years ago though, Draper was a counter-puncher, battling from well behind the baseline because everyone else his age was far bigger and stronger.
“He was such a fighter, such a scrapper,” says Sherring. “He was always the skinniest, always the smallest.
“I think it helped him though, because it helped him develop all his skills. He never became reliant on massive serves, massive forehands.”
Draper now stands 6ft 4in tall and even in the last 12 months has filled out, but those close to him reckon he still has a couple of years of physical development to go.
He has lost time to make up for too. In a professional career of just 175 matches, he has nine retirements on his record, a reflection of the stop-start nature of his early years on the tour due to injuries.
“He didn’t get much time on the court, and he didn’t get a lot of momentum,” James Trotman told i.
“Trotters”, as he is known to almost everyone, had overseen Draper’s development for the LTA from something of a distance until October last year, when he started working with him on a more full-time basis, and one of his main focuses was making sure the 20-year-old could stay injury-free.
“It’s incredibly difficult for a tennis player to fulfil their potential if they’re not getting the chance to compete, stay fit and healthy,” he adds.
“Giving him a chance to fulfill his potential was the number one goal.”
Seemingly it did not take long. Draper started 2022 ranked around 260 in the world. After winning four second-tier Challenger titles in the space of just a few months, he reached the verge of the top 100.
Team Draper though resisted the temptation to ride the wave and pack in tournaments wherever they could. He is limited to three tournaments in a row before a self-imposed break, and coach Trotman places an emphasis on downtime whenever he can.
“He’s not somebody who wants to just do nothing,” Trotman says.
“But I’ll him to take the dog out for a walk or go meet up with a friend just to get away from things a little bit and switch off from what is a pretty stressful occupation.”
Those stress levels will only go up when the Wimbledon draw comes out on Friday and the British No 4 learns his first-round opponent, although it surely cannot be more high-profile than last year’s when he had to take on Novak Djokovic.
“You play this sport and coach and compete as a player to be on the biggest stages in the world,” Trotman says.
“Wimbledon is clearly one of those tournaments. You’re gonna be excited, there’s going to be probably a little bit more adrenaline and nervous energy that starts kicking around, but I feel that it’s my job, as much as possible, that we prepare the same for Wimbledon as we prepare for the Challenger in Italy at start of the year.
“We’re not making something bigger out of it than it needs to be. It’s another tennis match. It’s about you trying to keep developing, keep improving. Keep challenging yourself in these areas of your game.
“And whatever happens we know one thing in tennis: there’s always somebody wins and somebody loses.”
More often than not so far, Jack Draper wins.
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