Conversation with an Ivy League tennis great Ilia Shatashvili.
You had quite an outstanding junior career with an extremely difficult school schedule, how did you manage both?
The truth is that time management was always a challenge that I considered to be a privilege. I was lucky enough in my youth to have the opportunity to participate in several activities; primarily tennis, chess, and the piano along with my academic curriculum. Although this busy schedule required sacrifices in certain areas such as my social life or a less rigorous tennis training schedule, it allowed me to develop more broadly in my skill sets and I always found creative ways to develop habits and routines that prioritized quality over quantity in time spent dedicated to each activity. I always held the perspective that my unique path through junior tennis would suit me in the long run as I never felt like I was over-doing my training and burning out. All the other top kids in the country were either at full-day academies or training 6+ days a week, while I was happy with 2 practice sessions a week, sometimes even less during the indoor winter months in New Jersey.
What role did your parents play in your development?
As an only child my parents were integral in my development on and off the court as they had nobody else to dedicate all their attention to. This can be both a blessing and a curse. Thankfully for my tennis game, having my father instill the technical fundamentals and coach me through my primary years in the sport gave me an advantage over many other kids early on. My father was an elite junior tennis player in the Soviet Union before a meniscus injury derailed his athletic aspirations. Moving to the United States at 3, as a first generation American it was always obvious to me that my childhood opportunities were not to be taken for granted. My parents sacrificed so much of their time and took a risk starting a new life in a foreign country so that I could have the ability to pursue my passions.
What was the experience of playing Ivy League tennis like? What was your proudest moment?
Ivy League tennis is tough. Everyone is good and our academic schedules combined with our practice times meant that I would on a daily basis take morning classes, train in the afternoon, and take more classes in the evening. I entered college at 16 so I wasn't physically and mentally mature yet and there was definitely an adjustment period for getting used to a much more intense fitness/tennis schedule. At Columbia we had a fantastic team and were consistently competing for Ivy League titles. Winning an Ivy League title definitely stands out. It's a team accomplishment that the entire school, athletic department, coaching staff, and players share pride in accomplishing and is the result of hard work on everybody's part.
You transitioned to coaching at Princeton soon after, what made you go into college coaching?
It was actually very serendipitous. I grew up in Princeton and after working in NYC for a year after college I wanted to dedicate myself to tennis again and see where it would take me. At the time I was training in the area and playing a bunch of events, and my friend Chris Hoeland who was the assistant coach for the Princeton Men's tennis team suffered an unfortunate knee injury. As a result head coach Glenn Michibata reached out to see if I would have interest in helping the team out. Next thing I know, I'm regularly hitting with the boys and coaching them at Ivy matches. It was an extremely fun and rewarding experience as I got to build relationships with so many talented individuals. In particular I look back fondly on all the sparring and coaching I did with Matija Pecotic, who was a standout at Princeton and later on the ATP tour (career high ATP ranking #206) and remains a good friend.
Fun fact, Matija actually beat me at the US Open National Playoffs in the semis a few years back. Why did we not win US Open Playoffs? I was going for all 3 events in New England section for the second straight year. I see you win championships with everyone else...
Really putting me on the spot here. I don't believe in excuses. We should have won. If I remember correctly we had match points in our semi-final match? How did we blow those? Clearly you and I are both not over the trauma. For those that do not know I will mention a couple of factors that may have prevented us from strolling to the title. That event I only played in the doubles because there was no chance I was physically going to hold up in singles. A month prior to the event I sustained a significant injury to my left wrist playing basketball which didn't require surgery but did result in sharp pain any time I tried to drive my two-handed backhand. I was never going to pull out because I'm a stubborn competitive mule and I really thought we were going to figure out a way! You would think that experience would have caused me to never play basketball again.. and yet at this point I'm starting to think I may have a better chance of playing in the NBA than getting into the top 100 of the ATP.
I am pretty sure I couldn't buy a first serve actually...Why do you think your love for the game remained so strong, what are you most grateful for over the course of your tennis life?
It's really simple. I always enjoyed playing. I always wanted to play more. I never felt forced. I never felt like I was sick of it. Training much less than other kids was clearly an advantage against burning out. That isn't to say that I had it all perfect. I'm sure if I practiced more I could have gone from being top 15 in the country to top 5 which could have resulted in more sponsorships or support from the USTA. Also it took me a while to fully understand how important hard work and dedication to the craft was. When you can get away with doing less work and achieving similar results you can lose some perspective of what it really takes to become the best at something.. and that's a lot more than just talent and confidence. I'm grateful that I had the unique journey that I did because I'm still inspired to sign up for competitive events and see how I fare against opponents that seem to be getting younger and younger every year. I can't imagine ever letting go of the game that has given me so many highs and lows and most importantly connected with so many of the important people still in my life!
If you were to give advice to junior players looking to play ivy league what would it be?
It's one of the most corny cliches ever but always focus on being the best person and player that you can be. We often compare ourselves against others in all aspects of life and naturally in tennis we have junior rankings and the recruiting process. The reality is success requires a lot of failure and maximizing potential over the long haul means having a broader macro view of your development rather than living and dying by every win and loss. It's so much easier said than done. So primarily I would always recommend playing a variety of sports at a very young age to develop a wide athletic base on which to build your tennis fundamentals on. Focus on technique and fundamentals in the 12s and 14s. The results will then come in the 16s and 18s. Sports science and the mental side is a part of the game that we are getting wiser and wiser every year at an increasing rate for good reason. Be inquisitive and seek feedback from experienced pros that you develop a level of trust with - always listen. In tennis you can't always determine the outcome of every point, game, set, match .. there is an opponent on the other side of the net who is participating in this dance, so it's important to remember to focus on the things that you can control. Finally, trust the process!