The typical tennis prodigy stories don’t fit Julia Jamieson.
Julia wasn’t born with a racket in hand. She didn’t hit hundreds of balls a day at age five. She wasn’t sent away to attend an elite tennis academy.
Julia didn’t even pick up the game until she was 12, the age of a relative veteran in the ultra-competitive youth tennis world. Julia only got serious about the sport when she entered high school.
But although the amount of time she has spent on the court is short by tennis standards, Julia's progress has been rapid. Now a senior at Loyola Academy, Julia’s relentless training has paid off.
“In three years, she’s made the biggest progress I’ve seen since I’ve been in the North Shore area among boys and girls, said Rob Budacsek, a tennis pro at College Park Athletic Club in Deerfield, and Julia’s coach. “She transformed from an average high school player into a potential pro candidate.”
Julia recently signed a letter of intent with the University of Illinois, accepting a scholarship to play tennis in Champagne-Urbana starting next fall.
“I really liked their coaches and their team atmosphere. Their entire team was so close and so positive,” Julia said of Illinois’ tennis team. “When I went on my recruiting visit, the atmosphere before a match was something I was really looking for in a school and there wasn’t tension between any of the players.”
DEVELOPING A LOVE FOR TENNIS
While athletics run in the family, tennis is something relatively new to the Jamieson clan. Julia’s mom, Lisa Jamieson, picked the game up in her 30s, but no one played competitively.
Still, it was Lisa’s interest that got Julia her start in the sport she has grown to love. When Julia was in grade school in Michigan, Lisa signed up Julia and her younger brother for a tennis class to keep them busy during the summer months.
“I liked it a lot because it was more of an individual sport; I had more control over it,” Julia said. “Because I played more often, I started making more friends and was involved so much in it.”
After moving to Wilmette at the start of her freshman year of high school, Julia’s interest in the sport started to blossom. She was referred to Budacsek from her coach in Michigan and accepted the challenge given to her.
“I told her if you want to play Division 1 tennis one day at a Big 10 school or a high level, you have to multiply your hours significantly on the court, you have to work in the gym,” Budacsek said. “She had a pretty good start physically, but that doesn’t mean she was fit to play seven matches in a row.”
PUTTING IN THE WORK
From then on Lisa put Julia in charge of her own tennis schedule: calling to set up lessons, going to the gym and registering for tournaments. Lisa avoided going down the path that controlling, sports-crazed parents often take.
“I realized she had to figure out what she wanted and then do it herself,” Lisa said. “If she wanted to get better, she knew what she had to do.”
Because of Julia’s late start, she was well-behind other girls who had boosted their national ranking and started playing in national tournaments as early as grade school. So Julia and coach Budacsek set up an extensive travel schedule that involved national tournaments year-round, many of which revolved around the holidays.
Julia was away from home a lot. Her travel schedule forced her to stop playing high school tennis for Loyola Academy and she only traveled to tournaments with her hitting partner, Ryan Rowe. Lisa said the biggest sacrifice everyone made with Julia’s training was family time.
Yet, the burnout that occurs with so many young athletes never developed with Julia.
“It never really happened to me because I wasn’t as in to [tennis] in the beginning,” Julia said. “I would get tired after a while from traveling on my own, being away from home, but I got to a point where I was used to it so it didn’t bother me as much.”
RECRUITING OFFERS ROLL IN
Julia’s commitment to tennis and to fitness boosted her into the top 75 nationally, according to Tennisrecruiting.net. She routinely put in five-hour training days during the summer—grinding through a heavy dose of hitting, weight training and endurance workouts.
She sparked interest from numerous coaches in the Midwest and on the east coast, choosing the Illini over offers from schools like Iowa, Syracuse, Dartmouth and Brown.
“Most of it started when I got letters and calls last summer,” Julia said. “That’s when all the schools start really watching because they have more availability to come watch you. It started in September, October  and really hit hard in June.”
Julia joins one other recruit, Melissa Kopinski from Palos Hills, IL, to form the Illini’s recruiting class of 2011.
While Julia isn’t sure what she wants to study at Illinois, Budacsek thinks she could have a shot at joining the professional tour if she chose to do so in the future.
“I think Julia possesses the ability, but whether [the family] will take that risk…that’s a new level of commitment,” Budacsek said.
But that decision is miles down the road. After all, it was only four years ago that Julia started competitive play, and she still has high school graduation to go through in May.
“My goal is just to play college tennis and keep improving my game,” Julia said.