Blu Baker, tennis protégé, grips his racquet, wipes the sweat from his face and tries to ignore the blazing Florida sun.
It is 37C on court and Blu has already been training for eight hours. Despite the gruelling heat and the mountains of homework that wait for him when he steps off court, Blu is still smiling – there is nowhere else he would rather be.
Blu first picked up a racquet when he was two years old and at the age of five he won his first trophy at the Hampshire Clash of the Clubs tournament in 2006.
Blu went on to win national competitions in the UK and top level academy tournaments in the United States, including victories at the Sanchez Casal academy and the Bollettieri academy where Boris Becker and Maria Sharipova trained.
After several training visits to the Gomez Tennis Academy in Florida, Rene Gomez, the coach who trained tennis legends Andre Agassi and Anna Kournikova, asked if Blu would attend the academy full time.
‘That is when the alarm bells started to go off,’ says Blu’s father, Kevin Baker.
‘How can we do it, how can we make this happen? We had found a coach that wanted to work with Blu and could see his potential. It was a big deal for me to begin with. I had a big hand in developing Blu and I had to hand him over to someone we could trust.’
To make it possible for Blu to train in Florida his parents, Kevin and TJ Baker, had to make the difficult decision to split the family between America and the UK.
TJ flew out with Blu in March to support Blu at the academy for four months while Kevin stayed at home in Southsea to look after Blu’s brother and sister.
‘At first four months doesn’t seem like a long time, but actually when you are living it, four months is a long time to be apart. After a couple of weeks you realise how much you miss them,’ says Kevin.
‘It was difficult. T is my best friend as well as my wife. Not having someone to talk to is hard, I miss sitting down and having a chat.
‘Blu is also a big personality so around the house the place was just very quiet. It took a bit of getting used to.’
Kevin was also single-handedly running the newly opened Portsmouth Tennis Academy in Burnaby Road, a project that he and TJ had been developing together for months.
‘The home cooking when mum is away is non-existent, I think I have lost a stone since TJ went away. I work until seven most evenings and the last thing I want to do is cook. There have been a few microwave meals and takeaways,’ Kevin grinned.
Meanwhile, in Florida TJ had food troubles of her own: ‘They expect so much of the children, you either give 100 per cent or leave the court. We are expected to follow the academy way, you can’t just pop into McDonald’s. We have to be a lot more careful about what we feed Blu.’
TJ found the transition difficult at first, but eventually found her feet: ‘It was very daunting. I was worried I was going to break down. What would I do if Blu happened to be ill? I had nobody else to rely on,’ says TJ
‘It was tough but it got easier and easier. The American mums and dads have helped me find the best places to get things, how to get the car taxed and how to get a social security number,’
As well as the demands of day-to-day life, TJ also struggles with being apart from the rest of the family, particularly as her daughter Kenedi, 19, is finishing college and preparing to head to university.
‘I have sacrificed time with my daughter. I am missing some of her milestones that I would have liked to be there for, Kenedi’s leaving parties, her prom and exams.’
Kenedi has also found the separation tough but knows that it is important for Blu.
‘It’s been a bit of a challenge. Mum is so supportive, I can talk to her over Facebook but I miss having her here. I miss Blu too, he can be a pain sometimes, but that is what 11-year-old brothers are for. I am really proud of him for doing this and I think he’s going to do really well,’ says Kenedi.
Blu’s brother Brad, 19, agrees: ‘It’s been quieter, not as much screaming and running around. We miss Blu, but he’s got to do what he’s got to do.’
And what about Blu, how does he cope with the long days, hard work and separation?
‘It is very hard. They push you to the limit, where you can’t come back from. It’s 120 per cent every day,’ says Blu.
‘I was very excited to go out there. I wasn’t scared, I was just thinking if there were going to be new kids, would they be friends with me.
‘I miss my dad, my brother, kind of my sister, my x-box and baked beans!’ he quips.
Kevin is cautiously optimistic about the future: ‘It is such a long journey, there is so much that can go wrong, but I think he’s on track to play at a very high level.’
Blu dreams big: ‘I want to be a professional, to play all the grand slams and I would like to lift that Wimbledon trophy one day.’ And who knows, with the love and support of a family like this behind him, and his undoubtable talent, he just might.
TENNIS FOR ALL
Do you dream about being the next Nadal or serving like Sharipova?
Portsmouth has plenty of opportunities for you to train to perfection from indoor courts and tennis domes, to floodlit park courts and play-for-free schemes.
In July Portsmouth received £1.3m from the Lawn Tennis Association to develop new and existing tennis facilities in the city.
Portsmouth was one of only eight cities in the UK to receive this funding and more than £800,000 of the money has been invested in a new tennis centre, being built next to the Mountbatten Leisure Centre, which is due to open in November.
The remaining funding has gone towards refurbishment of Milton park and Southsea Tennis Club and has also provided coaching sessions at Cosham Park and a pay-and-play scheme at the Priory Tennis Centre.
Zoe Bambridge, Tennis Development Manager for Hampshire Lawn Tennis Association says: ’Portsmouth was selected as one of the eight pilot project areas across the country to focus on participation and raise awareness of where to play tennis in the city. We want to ensure we have sustainable facilities and tennis opportunities for all.’
For more information about tennis facilities and special tennis offers in your area visit tennisinportsmouth.com. If you want someone to play against go to localtennisleagues.com/portsmouth to join the Portsmouth tennis league.