A couple of weeks ago, we played at the Johnny Mac Tennis Project (JMTP) annual Hamptons Pro-Am to support their mission to provide access to higher level tennis and tennis programs to underprivileged NYC area kids, including access to one of the elite tennis training academies in the country, the John McEnroe Tennis Academy (JMTA). Afterwards, we caught up with Evan Wen, featured in our most recent FW23 photoshoot, one of JMTA’s current star players and a Princeton commit (starting this fall), to get an inside look into the junior academy lifestyle and its impact from the eyes of a highly accomplished recent alumni.
Let’s just start with your background. How’d you get started playing tennis and what was your path leading to today?
Actually my dad was always really into tennis. I didn’t know much about it. Then one day, after school when I was around seven, my dad got tickets to the US Open. I didn’t really want to go. Again, I didn’t really know what tennis was. My mom even said she would take me home if I got bored or started acting up. But it turned out to be the most entertaining thing I’d ever seen in my life. I was like, I have to play this sport. It was the 2010 finals, Nadal played Djokovic. I begged for months afterwards to let me play tennis. Finally, one of my teachers called and said, “hey has Evan tried playing tennis?” That's when I finally started playing.
Did you get serious right away or was it gradual?
I was not very good at all. I was athletic but I was not coordinated. So for the first few years I was just going out there and having fun. My mom was making me shadow swing in the parking lot. Eventually, once I turned nine or ten, I really liked the sport. I started dropping other sports that I played. I started dropping soccer and basketball, just because I was liking tennis a lot more and wanted to put more time into matches. By the time I was 10, it was only tennis. It happened pretty quick - within the span of a couple years.
How did you transition to John McEnroe’s Academy? How’d you find it and get started?
When I was younger, I became one of the best players in the world at around 13. I was always naturally big and strong. I think I was six feet tall at 13 years old. I was taller than everybody else, which helped me a lot. I was number one in the country for 12s and 14s and became one of the top players in the world around 14. Up until then, I was at Center Court Academy in New Jersey – one of the biggest clubs in the Eastern Region. In my few years there, many of my coaches cycled through. I had great coaches, I loved them, but finally I had one more coach, or sort of group of coaches, leave and that was the last straw. I needed to find somewhere more consistent to play.
I tried to find other coaches – found another coach for a while, which didn’t work out, and then was kind of in limbo for a bit, trying to find new coaches. I was working with one coach for a short period of time when Patrick approached my mom with the opportunity to be in VMP Mac 1 (a training group at JMTA). Although we had a bunch of options it was the best one in terms of being able to stay close. I would still be able to live at home, be with my family, and do school in the area (online school based in New York City). Everything kind of worked together, plus a great scholarship opportunity, so I decided to go with that. And the coaches here have just been so great.
It was going great until COVID hit and I got injured. Right before then, I was still one of the top players in the world. And then I took a hit. I was out for a year and half with three herniated discs. My fitness coach, Richard, and tennis coaches, Lawrence and Ryan and a few other guys with the support of Patrick, were so good helping me get back from my injury. Coming back, going from not losing very much, to my friends being leagues ahead of me, was very tough – honestly the toughest part was mental. Physically I healed after a year and a half. I still have the herniated discs, though they’re asymptomatic now. But when I came back, I was really struggling mentally.
When I first came back, I won my first tournament. Honestly, I don’t know how it happened. I beat two guys who were legit players. I thought I was back. Lo and behold, next tournament – not the result I wanted. Next tournament, even worse result. Then the next one…it started to get in my head. Then came the pressure of – where am I going to go to college?
A lot of my friends were winning junior slams, that sort of thing, and I’m sitting here like what am I supposed to do with my life? I’m so lucky I had the guidance that I did at JMTA. My fitness coach, all my coaches, were so good at knowing how to deal with me at that time.
What sort of things did they do – anything specific – that really helped you most?
I came back around March and April of 2021, after Covid hit. I progressed very slowly and by November, I had lost so many matches and I had no motivation that it was painful for me to be out on the court. And the coaching staff here was able to realize that my problem wasn’t the tennis – I needed to get it together mentally and physically.
My coach, Lawrence, said how about we do fitness all the time. His theory was fitness is all motivation, all positive. You lift a weight, it’s good. No one is going to tell you, you suck. You’re going to lift a heavier one next week. It’s all motivation and all positive. So I did that for a month - only fitness, no tennis. Then I came back and won my first tournament back. I had a lot more confidence.
I was able to make a push that year, in 2022. After my break from tennis, I traveled with the academy and I had a far better year than anyone expected. My friends were all planning to go to college, but my parents were trying to convince me to take a gap year - graduate high school and take the next year to focus on tennis…train, travel, compete and then head off to college. I ended up taking the gap year and committing to Princeton in the fall of 2022.
If I hadn’t had the connections from the academy, their help, I never would have been able to commit to Princeton. I ended up having a really strong year that propelled me to play at Princeton. But yeah, by the end of that summer my friends were like – wow, you’re back. I don’t think I could have done that at a lot of places. I really had a lot of support from the coaching staff, especially from my coaches Lawrence and Richard. It’s been a lot of positive support and I can’t thank them enough.
I got all the way back to 130ish in the world (ITF Junior rankings) and I do feel like I could have been better if I had more time. I missed the US Open by one spot. That sucked. Especially since I live here. The US Open is 15 minutes from where I am now. Maybe I can play there in the pros one day.
So it sounds like training wise JMTA is super personal, really customized to you, is that how it usually is? Because a lot of academies have their own system. How would you describe their methods?
Yeah, so honestly I don’t know if I took advantage of it fully because of my injury. Before my injury we were really sitting down and creating a schedule. After my injury it was a little bit tougher because we were managing a lot more things. Small injuries that were coming up here or there. Again I had to sit for a year and a half, no exercise whatsoever, because I herniated three discs. It was hard for me to get out of bed. It was pretty terrible. It became a lot more play it by ear. But they do really focus on what you need specifically.
Especially with homeschool, you have all day to get better. The schedule is usually two practices a day. One in the morning, private lesson, then a group practice in the afternoon. You work on what you need in a lesson, but you do it in a group setting. And a lot of times on the trips our fitness coach was the only one who went with us, which was an interesting approach. Basically what they’re saying is your tennis is good enough. Just go out there and do it. And then our fitness coach, Coach Richard, was able to keep us playing – good nutrition, well hydrated – so we could go out there and do our best. For the biggest tournaments our coaches would come.
When I came back, they all came with me to the Easter Bowl and Hard Courts (National Championships), two of the biggest tournaments of the year, and those were the two best tournaments I had. I actually ended up beating Ethan Quinn, who won NCAAs this year, at Easter Bowl. I made round of 16 at Hard Courts and lost in three sets to the one seed, Martin Dam. Honestly, by then I was playing at a level where I thought I could win the tournament and lost to the 1 seed. I do think I was truly playing at just about my highest level and it was in huge part thanks to JMTA for creating a positive environment and a lot of belief.
Looking forward now – how did you end up deciding on and committing to Princeton?
There are so many reasons, but most importantly of all is Coach Pate and Coach Damian’s endless belief in me and support of me throughout the time I was coming back from my injury…such a painful and difficult time. They also had good connections with my current coaches and I had a number of friends also going to Princeton. My injury and decision to take a gap year before college changed my life, my trajectory of decisions and my outlook in so many ways, which, in hindsight, has only been for the better. I’m really excited to start in a few weeks!
Have you thought about after college or your future in tennis? Still have aspirations to go pro one day?
Yeah, when I was a kid I always wanted to be a pro. I feel like that’s a lot of kids. Now that I’m older, I understand how difficult that actually is. How much time and discipline you have to put in. So I really want to feel it out in college and see if – first of all I’m at the level where I think it’s worth it to try and go pro. I think the fact that I have a good education behind me will take a lot of pressure off. I know a lot of people that struggle going pro because they literally have nothing else. A number of players I grew up with committed pro and they don’t even have a full high school education, so they have to go pro. There’s a lot more added pressure with that. I can go out and play a little more free, instead of really needing it.
I want to go out in college and do the best I can, set goals for myself. My biggest one is to win NCAAs one day if I can – which would give me the opportunity to play the US Open, something I’ve always wanted. I’m still going to put in the work day in and day out. I’ll put in the amount of work I want to put in, instead of throwing myself against the wall to do anything to make it, and see how far I can go. Hopefully I can make it, but if I don’t that’s okay too and I'll have a solid education to fall back on.
Have you thought about what you’re going to major in?
Princeton has this unique major, it’s called Operations Research and Financial Engineering. I was really thinking about doing that. It’s a pretty prestigious major at Princeton. It’s hard because it’s an engineering major but I’ve been told that it’s worth it. And that it’s lucrative enough to justify the effort. Also, I’m a big math and science guy so it should be exciting.