Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Tennis sensation Nicola Kuhn is 15, blond, superfit - and simply the best

Nicola Kuhn  prepares to receive serve against Yuichi
Sugita on Valencia's 3000-seat  Centre Court
British tennis fans may have a long wait for a successor to root for once Andy Murray passes his sell-by date.

So how about a blond 15-year-old superkid whose truly international pedigree adds instant irresistability to his image as the best young prospect in the game?

Nicola Kuhn is also considerably better looking than misery-mouth Murray - and, unlike the sour-faced Scot, has also been known to smile when he wins.

A multi-cultured European, young Nico is not so much on the ladder to international stardom. He is already halfway there - as the best player on the planet born in the 21st century. And while he will technically be a Junior for three more years, 2016 is likely to be the year of his big breakthrough.

Two weeks ago, the Austrian-born superkid led Germany to the grand final of the Junior Davis Cup, winning an unparallelled 11 successive singles matches in a competition involving 134 nations. In the final against Canada, he comfortably beat Felix Auger-Aliassime, whose rocketing success against senior professionals on the ATP circuit has been grabbing headlines all over the world - not least on Youtube video.

Nico's reward for his achievements this year was a Wild Card entry to last weekend's qualifying competition at  the Valencia Open, n ATP World Tour event won last year by Andy Murray and this year featuring world No.7 David Ferrer and controversial Australian Nick Kyrgios among the seeds.

When he stepped on to the Centre Court for the first time on Saturday, Nico was  just three matches away from a head to head with Ferrer or Kyrgios in the main draw. The sting was that his first opponent was world No.132 Yuichi Sugita, a Japanese Davis Cup veteran and 12 years Nico's senior.

Ultimately, Sugita's subtle experience brought him a 6-2, 6-3 victory that was considerably less comfortable than the scoreline suggests. In fact, he was almost lost for words when he was told after the match that Nico is 15 years old.. "Un-be-lievable,'' he gasped. "Never in my life have I seen a player so young who can play that good. He is a star in the making, for sure.''

Nico's training and playing kit is as colourful as his tennis
So who exactly is Nicola Kuhn and why am I touting him to become one of the game's biggest names? Well, let's just say he looks the complete Tennis Super-hero  package, complemented by a squeeky clean image that is already endearing him to mums and dads as much as teenage fans. 

Nico's roots are fascinatingly complex. Born in Austria, his family moved to the Costa Blanca when he was three months old. His father, Alfred, is German, mum Rita (from whom he inherited his blond complexion) is Russian and they live in a predominantly British urbanisation at Torrevieja. Nico speaks Spanish, German, English and Russian fluently...and if you push him regarding his nationality, he will concede quietly that he feels more Spanish than anything.

Which suggests that a major decision could be in the pipeline over his future tennis loyalties in team competitions like Davis Cup.

By the time he was three, the Kuhn kid was begging his parents for a  tennis racket - and he's been besotted with the game ever since. He also demonstrated almost instantly at Torrevieja Tennis Club that he is a natural, winning local and regional events at every childhood level.

By 2012, even the great Boris Becker was talking about him, describing the 12-year-old prodigy as "a better player than I was at his age.'' 

Nico with his tennis mentor Juan Carlos Ferrero in 2013
It was around that time that another tennis legend, former World No.1 Juan Carlos Ferrero, came into Nico's life. For the past four years, the youngster has been commuting daily between his home in Torrevieja and Ferrero's prestigious Equilite Tennis Academy at Villena, near Valencia. 

The exhausting 208-kilometre round trip to combine tennis practice and academic studies would drain any normal human being. But Nico is a one-off - he supplements the travel torture with an intense  training regime that burns off a cool 5,500 calories a day. 

His tennis advisers at the Equilite, headed by coach Fran Martinez, are determined to keep his feet on the ground, which is why they are not particularly partial to articles like this one eulogising their most valuable young asset.

I understand their logic exactly, but I'm a professional journalist and this is a good story full of positive vibes. So, with apologies to those who want to keep his CV under wraps, I hereby introduce the new 007 of teenage sport to you.

He answers to the name of Blond. Games Blond, that is. You could even try calling him Nico Teen but that's as near as he's ever likely to get to the vices of youth culture.

The last 12 months has seen Nicola rocket more than 1,000 places up the world junior (19 and under) rankings. By the end of this year.he will be in the top 40 - and one of the youngest as well.

However, Nico has already thrown his hat in with the professionals, having won his first ATP ranking point in May this year, two months after his 15th birthday. To understand the significance of that statistic, Rafael Nadal was six months older when he achieved the same feat.

FACTS AND FIGURES: Nicola Kuhn (born March 20, 2000) is a junior tennis player whose run of 11 successive singles victories helped Germany to reach the Final of the 2015 Junior Davis Cup. He was subsequently voted the worldwide tournament's Most Valuable Player.
Kuhn, who won his first ATP ranking point in a Futures tournament at the age of 15 years two months, was brought up in Torrevieja, Spain. His parents, German businessman Alfred Kuhn and his Russian-born wife, Rita, settled in the Costa Blanca when Nicola was three months old.
Nicola showed a keen interest in tennis from the age of three, when he asked his parents to buy him a racket. "I dreamt of being a professional tennis player ever since I can remember,'' he says. At the age of 12, Nicola switched his tennis allegiance from Spain to Germany, whose tennis authorities offered to help with his equipment and travel expenses. He also joined the prestigious Equilite Tennis Academy at Villena, near Valencia, run by former world No.1 Juan Carlos Ferrero, where he was able to supplement his fledglng tennis career with his academic studies.
In February 2014, Kuhn emulated Rafael Nadal (2000) and Andy Murray (2001) by reaching the final of the prestigious Les Petit As under-14 tournament in Tabres, France. He ended the year ranked No.4 on the Tennis Europe 14-and-under Junior Tour rankings, despite playing in only seven tournaments. His individual successes during 2014 included the European Masters title in Calabria, Italy and the Nike International Junior tournament in Bolton, England, He was also a key member of Germany's ITF World Team Championship winning team and their viictorious Tennis Europe Winter Cup trio. Feeling that Nicola would benefit from tougher opposition, Nicola's coach Fran Martinez and support team began to enter 14-year old Nicola into ITF 18-and-under events. Competing against players up to three years older than himself, he won two lower-grade tournaments in Shenzhen, China before his 15th birthday, which he celebrated by reaching the last 16 of his first Grade 1 tournament in Umag, Croatia.
Kuhn's first taste of senior competition saw him win his first ATP ranking point at Lleida in May, 2015, while at Junior level he continued to rack up ranking points and entered the world's Top 100 for the first time. In October, he qualified for his first US Junior Open, losing in the last 32 at Flushing Meadows. A few weeks earlier, he had inspired Germany into the Junior Davis Cup finals with an immaculate singles record in the European qualifying event at Le Touquet.
Competing against the world's top 16 nations, Nicola again won all his individual games to lead his adopted country to the JDC Final in Madrid, where they lost 2-1 to Canada. Kuhn's consolation was that he was voted the tournament's Most Valuable Player and in beating the much-vaunted Félix Auger-Aliassime in straight sets, staked a justifiable claim to be the world's best player born in the 21st century.
In late October, Kuhn reached the quarter-final of the prestigious Osaka Mayor's Cup event in Japan, and achievement which lifted him to No 70 in the ITF Junior rankings,
And finally, Nico meets the woman of his dreams...ME!

Donna Gee

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