Just a couple of years ago, Neel Rajesh was one of the top high school players on Long Island. Competing for one of the best high school teams on the Island in the Syosset Braves, he played atop the lineup at first singles and helped lead his team to a both a Nassau County Championship and Long Island Championship.
“It was a lot of fun to play for a team; it was a completely different experience altogether,” recalls Rajesh. “Tennis is usually such an individual sport, but when you are on a team, you’re playing for something bigger. It was more fun, there’s more energy.”
But following that season, Rajesh made the difficult decision that many top junior tennis players face: He chose to stop playing high school tennis, and instead, focused on his individual training while finishing up his classes online.
“I felt like I was playing some good tennis and I wanted to play some ITF tournaments, and to do that you needed to travel more and there’s also a lot of tournaments during the week. So it’s tough,” he said. “I tried to play a few while I was playing at Syosset, but it was just too difficult to keep up with the curriculum and do all the traveling. So my family and I decided to do online schooling after that and just focus on some ITF tournaments, and focus on my practice to continue to try and get better.”
It has turned out to be a great decision for Rajesh, as he has found success on the ITF circuit, as well as in some of the top USTA tournaments, to become one of the most improved players in the country.
“It’s been a great experience. I really enjoy playing on the ITF circuit and competing in Nationals,” said Rajesh. “I feel like travelling around the world, you see so many different people and so many different cultures. I appreciate everything I have a little more now, after seeing people who didn’t have the same advantages I had, but are still working hard. That just motivated me even more. I was also able to see the level of play of the top kids from around the world, and I was able to compete with them. It just motivates me to keep getting after it and keep working hard.”
He credits a lot of his success to his training at Christopher Morley Tennis in Roslyn, N.Y., where he has been for the last two years.
“It’s a great culture to be a part of Christopher Morley Tennis. I was able to play with and against some high-level players like Cannon Kingsley and Spencer Brachman, and it was a great experience,” Rajesh said. “Everyone there, from all the coaches down to the fitness trainer, they really want to see you succeed and they do what they can to help you in any way. They’re always looking out and doing what’s best for the player. I felt like going there was the best move for me and I feel like it’s helped my game a lot.”
His private coach at the club is Nick Brebenel, whom he says has helped make him more of an attacking player on the court.
“I’ve worked with Neel and we’ve tried to develop a very aggressive and creative game,’ said Brebenel. “We’ve really worked to improve his footwork, and his confidence to come to the net more. I am so happy with how his game has come together over all.”
Perhaps his biggest win came last year at the USTA National Clay Court Championships in Delray Beach, Fla., where he won 10 matches, including four in the full three sets to claim the Gold Ball and score a huge tournament victory. The run was capped off by a thrilling 4-6, 6-3, 7-6(7) come-from-behind win over the defending champion and eighth-seeded Axel Nefve.
His run over the course of his two weeks in Delray Beach did more than just improve his rankings, it also did a great deal for his confidence and belief in his own game.
“That run was really magical for me,” Neel recalls. “My whole family and coach were there. Each match, I felt better about my game and how I was playing. I was confident heading in based on the tournaments I had played leading up to it, but I never thought I would do that well. I just kept at it every match. There were a lot of three-set matches in there, a lot of grinders, but my confidence never wavered. I was always staying with it mentally and physically, and just felt great that whole tournament.”
He began to receive a lot of calls from college coaches following his Delray Beach victory, as he became a highly-sought-after recruit. Rajesh fielded a lot of offers, but knew that he wanted to attend a school that had the perfect balance of high-level athletics and top-notch academics.
After narrowing his choices down and discussing his options with his family, he committed to Stanford and will join the Cardinal this fall.
“I felt at home there the second I stepped on campus and was hanging out with the team and the coaches. They were super nice and I really felt like they cared for me. They truly took an interest in me and my family,” said Rajesh. “And the weather in California … you can’t beat that. That’s one thing that really appealed to me also, being able to play outdoor tennis rather than indoor. I just felt that with the culture there, it was the right fit for me.”
Rajesh’s hard work and continued desire to improve his game has guided him to a decorated junior tennis career, and he will soon be competing for one of the top colleges in the country, and he is ready to take on the next stage of his life.
“I’m really looking forward to the team aspect of tennis again, and having the teammates and coaches behind me,” Neel stated. “I really want to grow as a player and I think the coaches are really going to help me a lot with that, and with my transition hopefully to the pro tour. I’m also just looking forward to being there as a student. Being away from my family is going to be tough at first, but I’m very much looking forward to continue growing both on and off the court.”
Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for Long Island Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.