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Back Condition Doesn't Keep Junior from Top Ranking

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August 4, 2016 10:12 AM

Originally published in the USTA Southern insert into the September/October 2016 issue of Tennis magazine. Free subscription is a USTA member benefit.

By James Beck/Special to USTA Southern
Top photo by Bill Kallenberg/Special to USTA Southern

Sleeping in an upper body brace every night for three-and-a-half years has to be agonizing, even painful. Then to be told he still must undergo surgery to correct a curved spine took top Southern junior Jared Pratt’s agony to another level.

Pratt was just a kid – 14 years old – when told he had scoliosis. Naturally, he was scared, mostly because he realized that he might never achieve his tennis dreams. Scoliosis was a frightening word that described his condition as he faced a “big operation.”

In September of 2013 he underwent surgery at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston for the curved spine condition. He was worried that his game might never be the same again.

Of course, his biggest concern was how scoliosis would impact his body after the surgery. Could he still aim to play tennis in high school or college?

All of the doubts and pain now appear to be behind the 16-year-old as he accomplishes one milestone after another. He’s 6-foot-1 now and says he’s “100 percent” healthy.

Earlier this year, approximately two-and-a- half years after the surgery, Pratt became the No. 1 Boys’ 16s player in the nine-state USTA Southern, the country’s largest section.

Not only does Pratt play a full junior schedule, he also plays tennis for Bishop England High School on Charleston’s Daniel Island. “High school is fun and less stressful than tournament tennis,” he said.

Less than two years after the surgery, Pratt helped Bishop England win its first state title in nearly two decades and he was honored as the best high school player for 2015 in the Charleston area.

In a period when many academy-trained players ignore the call of high school tennis, veteran Bishop England coach Kristin Fleming Arnold is grateful for Pratt’s affection for her program.

GETTING BACK TO NORMAL

Pratt had known about his condition since age 8. “I had a routine doctor’s appointment and they checked my spine then,” he said.

The condition continued to progress until surgery became the logical course of action. In July 2013, Jared’s mother, Diane, said at the time, “(Jared’s) curve had progressed significantly to 45 percent and surgery became necessary.”

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Just two days prior to his surgery, Pratt played No. 1 singles and doubles for the South Carolina Southern Junior Cup team and posted an 8-0 record as South Carolina finished second to Georgia in the competition.

At that point, he knew he had a bright future in tennis ... if only it weren’t for the back ailment.

The decision to undergo surgery still wasn’t an easy one. But Dr. James Mooney, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at MUSC, assured Jared and his family that, without the surgery, his condition would only grow worse.

The memory of the upper body brace will always be there for Pratt. “Leading up to surgery was not much fun. There were many sleepless nights,” he said, reliving the three-and-a-half years he had to sleep in the brace.

The nights sometimes carried over into the days, into matches. “I had pain in my lower back after playing for awhile. It was never major, but it did force me out of a tournament once,” he recalled.

“I always hoped that the brace would be good enough, but once I saw Dr. Mooney he assured me that it would continue to get worse without surgery even if I wore the brace, because I had so much growing to still do.

“I knew before my surgery that I could achieve a high Southern ranking, but I had no idea how I would play after surgery. So I am a little surprised (by the success).”

Diane was impressed by her young son’s perseverance. “I am extremely proud of how Jared handled his recovery and his return to tennis,” she said. “It was such a long recovery and I know it was hard for him to return to playing tennis and tournaments when he knew he wasn’t at 100 percent, but getting out there was part of the process.

“Some days were harder than others, but I am glad he persevered and is playing well. We were lucky to have had a lot of people to lean on, including family, his coaches and many friends, especially in the tennis community,” his mother added.

JAMES BLAKE IS ON THE PHONE

Pratt received encouragement during a special phone call from another tennis star who also experienced the effects of scoliosis – the former No. 4 player in the world, James Blake, in October 2013, a few weeks after Pratt’s surgery.

“He (Blake) was very nice and related to how scary scoliosis can be and to undergo such a big operation. He seemed very down to earth,” Pratt said.

As a teenager, Blake was limited by scoliosis. He wore a back brace 18 hours a day for five years.

“The call (from Blake) gave Jared a lift. He was excited,” Diane said.

Jared has been rising ever since and has been pleasantly surprised by the pace of his recovery.

“It didn’t take that long to recover my strokes once I was allowed to start playing again,” he said. “Rotation on ground strokes and serves felt awkward for a couple of months, and I had neck and back pains for awhile. I couldn’t play for more than 30 minutes without getting tired when I first started playing again.”

The following fall, Pratt enrolled at Bishop England as a freshman. He joined the tennis team in spring of 2015, and immediately made his presence felt.

This year, he secured a No. 15 USTA national ranking in Boys’ 16s by going 8-0 in the USTA Spring National Team championships in Mobile, Ala.

His center of the universe is Daniel Island, home of the WTA Tour’s Volvo Car Open. Pratt trains there at Family Circle Tennis Center’s MWTennis Academy.

His dad, Flip (Phillip), is a consultant for technology giant Oracle Corporation at the Federal Department of State in Charleston.

Of course, his parents played a key role in his recovery. “My family has been tremendously helpful during my recovery. My mom stayed with me every day at the hospital. There have been up and down moments but I’m thankful to be where I am right now. 

“I would also like to say that during my surgery and recovery, not only were my family and coaches great but all my tennis friends and families were amazing. Many visited, others sent gifts and all contacted me during my recovery and wished me well.”

He doesn’t travel alone through the tennis world. “My mom takes me to most of my tournaments which involves a lot of travel throughout the South and other parts of the United States. My Dad goes once in awhile when he can take off work or around holidays.”

And how did this young man become such an outstanding tennis player, other than the fact both of his parents play tennis?

“I watched a lot of tennis on TV when I was younger and have taken lots of lessons. Technique is important and I have been lucky to have good coaches.”

MWTennis CEO Jeff Wilson, a former Georgia Tech and Duke assistant tennis coach, has closely followed Pratt’s training regimen.

“Jared and his parents really followed the competitive plan that Bryan Minton laid out for them. Due to the adherence to this plan, Jared reached a high level of Southern and national play during his formative years,” Wilson said.

 “Jared only played up at the next level when he was winning tournaments at the previous level. Most players skip this critical step and play what everyone else plays. There was great communication between coaches, parents and Jared as to how to proceed in order to protect him as he made his way back from his surgery. Jared played a smart and purposeful schedule, competed well, and built his confidence back as he went.”

Pratt moved into the Southern’s No. 1 slot in mid-January of this year while sweeping both Boys’ 16s titles in the Southern Winter Level 1 Championships in Rome, Ga.

He still has a long tennis ride to go. “I see myself playing college tennis. I don’t think I’ll play professionally, but it’s always a possibility,” he said.

For Jared Pratt, possibilities are endless.


James Beck is the longtime tennis columnist for the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier newspaper.

Top photo by Bill Kallenberg, one of the leading junior and collegiate tennis photographers in the South.

 

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