This is not like 99% of the tennis player stories you’ve heard.
Kavin Shukla is the first to acknowledge how wild his story is, laughing in the re-telling several times.
“It’s crazy, right?” he said with a laugh, as this reporter said “wow” for at least the third or fourth time of the interview. “It doesn’t sound like anything that should’ve happened.”
In the world of junior tennis, there is a very clear formula for success: Start playing around age 5 or 6, slowly take the game more and more seriously with the influx of lessons and court time and tournament play, and by the time you’re a teenager, your path to glory is set, or at least you can see the path from there.
Your height is projected to be between 5’8″ an 6’3,” your strokes are finely honed, and college coaches beat down your door.
Absolutely none of that applies to Kavin Shukla.
He’s all of 5-foot-3, several inches shorter than even famous vertically-challenged tennis pros like Michael Chang and Fabrice Santoro.
He didn’t start playing seriously until the summer after 8th grade when he was 13.
“I didn’t even know how the scoring worked, or where you had to serve into,” Shukla recalled. “I was totally clueless.”
After taking some lessons around age 8, Shukla said he stopped playing for awhile. In his Indian family, he explained, sports was just not something anyone did. Academics were by far more important.
But finally, after what Kavin recalled as “I did something good in school,” he was told by his parents to pick something he wanted to do. Entering a tennis tournament was his answer, and his memory is that he did really well, losing in the final.
“And after that,” said Steven Stonar-Coleman, who leads Kavin’s coaching team at Robbie Wagner Tennis in Glen Cove, “his family was all in and totally committed.”
That commitment has led to impressive results in a short amount of time. Playing No. 1 singles for The Wheatley School this year, Kavin has amassed a 13-2 record through matches of May 22, leading his team to the playoffs.
After playing high school tennis as a freshman, he spent the past two years working hard with Stonar-Coleman and his coaches at Wagner, including Marcus Malcolm, Elvis Henry and Eldad Campbell, and playing as many tournaments as he could.
His success in those events led to recruiting interest, and Division III University of Rochester has signed him to play next year.
“He’s an amazing story, considering how late he started,” Stonar-Coleman said. “He was just a normal kid when we began, but his work ethic and the support he got from his parents, giving us the time to work with him, has made such a big difference.”
“From Day 1 this year he’s been the strongest player for us, and has been a great leader for the other kids,” said Wheatley coach Herman Lim. “Having him at No.1 has made the whole team stronger.”
Shukla said his tennis ascent came gradually once he started taking it seriously, but the more he played, the more he loved it.
As a vertically-challenged player, he had to learn to be quick around the court and use his tennis IQ to win points.
Stonar-Coleman said he used former Top 5 star Kei Nishikori as a role model for Shukla, “trying to give him an all-around game and play three feet behind the baseline.”
As he started to have success in tournaments, Shukla said, his belief that he could actually have a college tennis career started to take hold. He said he always planned to return to Wheatley for his senior season and said this spring has been “the most fun I’ve had in tennis.”
“I just love the team aspect of high school tennis, since this is such an individual sport,” Shukla said. “It’s been great seeing our success; everyone at school seems shocked we’re doing so well.”
If they knew Shukla’s unlikely road to get here, they wouldn’t be surprised by any of it.