Robert Stineman stood on the stadium court at the Nielsen Pro Tennis Championships on Sunday afternoon engulfed by a circle of kids. Stineman stood patiently, signing autographs and posing for pictures, acting as a veteran rather than having just competed in his first professional tournament.
Despite being the youngest participant in the field, Stineman was the huge fan favorite. As a recent New Trier High School graduate, Stineman had more than 300 supporters in the stands watching his two-set loss to Great Britain’s Jamie Baker in the opening round of the tournament qualifier.
“It was really cool; I’ll never forget that feeling,” said Stineman, who is a two-time Illinois High School Association state singles champion. “I’m really appreciative of everybody, all the people who came out and supported me.”
Sunday’s match represented much more than Stineman’s first chance to compete against the world’s best tennis players. It was another step in his transformation from an adolescent tennis fan to one of America’s top young prospects.
At the age of six, Stineman was a ball boy in this same tournament. He hit his first tennis ball at the Nielsen Tennis Center and practiced at the facility throughout high school.
“I kind of just kept up with tennis and here I am,” Stineman said. “It’s pretty cool to see where I’ve come the last 10 to 12 years with my game.”
Currently ranked No. 6 in the USTA Boys 18 division, Stineman will head to Stanford University on a tennis scholarship this fall.
But a spot in the Nielsen Championships was something he’d been eyeing for the past year. After Stineman helped New Trier win back-to-back team titles in late May, Linda Goodman, the tournament’s long-time director, gave him a wild card into the qualifying rounds.
Stineman came in to the tournament with no expectations, choosing to treat it as a learning experience and wanting to see where his game stacked up against those at the top level.
“I wasn’t going in here with a set goal to win two matches or something,” Stineman said. “I was going in knowing that whatever happened, it was a win-win experience.”
The 18-year-old’s nerves were evident early on in his match against Baker, ranked No. 371 in the world. He had four double faults in the first set and Baker broke Stineman on his last three service games to win the first set, 6-2.
“I was definitely pretty nervous when I got on the court,” Stineman said. “But it was fun. I wouldn’t have rather played in front of nobody and it was awesome having everybody out there.”
But there were definite bright spots in Stineman’s 6-2, 6-3 loss. He came up with a handful of service aces and recorded a dozen winners -- most of which came at the net – in the match. Stineman converted two break points and led 2-1 in each set. Overall, Stineman said he didn’t play too bad, but there was “definitely room for improvement.”
In his own words, playing at the Nielsen Championships was an almost-perfect ending to Stineman’s senior year. This summer he’ll work on improving his serve consistency and hitting the ball deeper in the court and with more pace.
If everything continues to fall into place, Stineman might find himself back on Nielsen’s stadium court. Maybe next time, it’ll be in the tournament’s main draw.
“This year has been filled with a lot of great moments that I’ll never forget,” Stineman said. “It was pretty awesome being able to finish one of the last tournaments I play here in Illinois as a high schooler and to play in front of that crowd.”