Through coaching juniors, Li Tu finds perspective—and another chance at a professional career

Through coaching juniors, Li Tu finds perspective—and another chance at a professional career

12 min read

By all accounts, Li Tu had enjoyed an elite junior tennis career. Tu represented Australia in the Junior Davis cup, and grew up training with the likes of Thanasi Kokkinakis and Luke Saville. He travelled the world in his early teens, playing international events such as the World Junior Teams competition where he played against the world’s preeminent junior tennis players. With a game styled as a hybrid between Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka, a promising professional career seemed likely.

The next step for him was to transition to the professional tour and cut his teeth playing against stronger, more developed players. He hit the Futures circuit at 15. But the results weren’t what he was expecting; Tu qualified a few times into the main draws of events, but that was as far as he progressed.

Internally, Tu was struggling. Every loss grated and hung around his psyche far longer than was healthy. As someone who had become accustomed to success during his junior career, he found himself upset for days after coming out on the wrong end of a tennis match.

“I didn’t cope well with losing,” Tu told Universal Tennis, “—especially when I tried hitting the Futures circuit. I was immature. I felt that ‘my name’s Li Tu, and your name’s X, therefore I should beat you. When that didn’t happen, it was a struggle. I wasn’t used to losing as a junior. So it really affected my confidence and how I trained. I wouldn’t want to train for a few days if I lost.”

The lack of success on the professional tour and his myopic attitude were finally too much for Tu. Just before he turned 16, after playing as part of a Junior Davis Cup team that finished 2nd in the world, and even though he was one of the best young talents globally, Tu gave up on tennis.

“I felt I wasn’t good enough and wasn’t doing well enough. So I walked away from the sport.”

He recalls emailing his father to let him know that he was done. He’d had enough of trying to be a professional. For Tu, who was enrolled in distance education at the time, schooling beckoned him back.

Tu’s new aim was to apply himself in the classroom because he knew that his academic results were well within his control if he took his studies seriously enough.

That wasn’t the case with tennis.

“I had this thought that if I worked hard enough in the classroom, the results were going to come. I didn’t have that feeling with tennis. It was a lot more uncertain.”

The uncertainties of a professional career often replayed themselves in his mind whenever he debated a return to the court.

But once Tu finished high school, he got involved in tennis again. “There was a 9 month stint where I was playing. I picked up a few points at Futures events in Melbourne and Mildura. At 18/19, I had maybe six or seven points.”

That old mentality though—of not only wanting, but expecting, to win—was still present in Tu. “I remember taking so many shortcuts, and not putting in the work. I travelled to Europe with a friend, and I got into the main draws but just lost in the first rounds of tournaments.”

That Europe trip was enough for Tu. It was time to put away the racquets and to head to university. Tu attended Adelaide University and studied Commerce & Marketing.

It was three years of being a college student; from 19–22, Tu was just like the millions of other kids his age who were pursuing their tertiary educations.

Still, tennis remained a part of his life—even if thoughts of a professional career lay dormant. “I really had closed that chapter in my life. I coached on the side and hit around once in a while but that was it.”

“I really had closed that chapter in my life. I coached on the side and hit around once in a while but that was it.”

Coaching was what kept him tethered to the sport. Towards the end of his undergraduate degree, he found himself enjoying the time he was spending on court more and more. He played in the local Adelaide State League (a weekly club competition), and was picking up more coaching hours, so he wondered if he could make a career out teaching tennis: “I thought I could do this coaching thing full time. That’s why I started my own business.”

Tu launched M2tennis with Australian coach Ben Milner and the duo focused on helping elite juniors hone their skills. After just a couple of years, M2tennis proved its worth. “We had a lot of success last year, a lot of our students did well: Alex Despoja won 14’s Nationals, Charlotte Kempenaers-Pocz won 18’s Nationals. And Amber Marshall was awarded a wildcard into the Adelaide International because she won the Australian Open Doubles Wildcard Playoff.”

Tu found that he had many experiences he could convey to young juniors who were trying to excel at tennis. After all, he had been one of the best juniors in the world. He had lived the highs and lows of an elite junior career.

But something unexpected happened as well: seeing the emotions and challenges that junior tennis players faced through the lens of a coach, Tu was gaining some much needed perspective.

That was the first time he had an inkling of the new mentality that was brewing inside of him. His time spent coaching was paying off in an unexpected way: he was changing the way he viewed competition—and even his own past career.

“From watching my students play matches, I realized that it was just one or two points here or there . If my students had done just one thing slightly differently, then they would have walked off the courts feeling totally different. A kid would walk off the court after losing a super tiebreaker 9–11 and look super distraught, and if they won 11–9 they’d come off so happy.

“And I just thought that the difference was one or two points—it shouldn’t really affect a player too much. It’s obviously a happier feeling to win. But I realized that being that defeated by a loss wasn’t productive. It was better to look ahead.” A growth mindset had ignited in Tu.

Witnessing the small margins by which tennis matches are won and lost, Tu began to reflect on his mentality while he had been a junior and how it might have held him back from a professional career.

That was when he heard about the UTR Pro Tennis Series in Adelaide.

He thought, why not play?

Though at the start of 2020 Tu’s UTR was 11.96, he made the cut for the competition based upon a bump from his Adelaide State League results, which pushed his UTR up to a 12.72.

This is one of the best things about Universal Tennis. Based simply upon his performances in a state club competition, Tu was able to gain entry into a tournament that was supposed to be limited to aspiring professionals.

Once the UTR Pro Tennis Series started in Adelaide, Tu went on what can only be described as a roll.

He didn’t lose a match—and defeated players who were training and competing full-time.

Tu won all three UTR Pro Tennis Series events in Adelaide.

The results were extraordinary for someone who had spent the two years prior just coaching full-time, but perhaps not extraordinary for someone with Tu’s track record and talent.

There was another shift, too:

“I was genuinely enjoying myself. I won the series in Adelaide, but I really didn’t care whether I won or lost when I was competing. It was fun to be just back out there. Before, I used to think too much about the expectations of being the favorite and having this pressure on you to win and this idea that if I don’t win, I’ll look bad.”

Tu said the new maturity came from coaching and also accepting himself as an individual when it came to competing. “A lot of coaches tell you how you should behave when you are on court in terms of your body language and intensity. But that didn’t work for me. What does work for me is to be more relaxed, have a good time, and be able to have a laugh about it. I never used to be able to do that.”

After his performances in Adelaide, Tu wanted to test himself. Even though he hadn’t been ‘training’ by any stretch of the imagination, he found himself wondering how he stacked up against Australia’s best.

“I wanted to go over to Sydney or Brisbane and see how I compared. Those players had high UTRs and not only that, they’d been travelling and playing on the circuit. They have world rankings, and they’re 300–500 in the world.”

That was when Tu reconnected with an old mentor, Daniel Buberis, who offered to help him gameplan for what Tu wanted to do with tennis.

After some debate and reflection, Tu decided that he wanted to give it another shot. He wanted to try playing professionally again.

So he spent a couple months getting his body and his mind ready for the next UTR Pro Tennis Series in Brisbane. Opponents would be tougher; and no match would be easy.

“The goal was to play the Pro Tennis Series in Brisbane and then assess based upon my performance there.”

Tu’s business partner at M2tennis, Ben Milner worked with Tu on the court during the lead up to the tournament in Brisbane, and Buberis, a strength & conditioning coach helped create a physical program. It was time for Tu to get serious. “There were a couple months where I wanted to get my body right and ready to play at the professional level. I lost 10kgs (22lbs), and I spent a lot of time on court.”

The preparation paid off.

Tu worked through his opponents in Pool B of the UTR Pro Tennis Series in Brisbane to come out on top of the grouping.

After that, fortune struck. Due to a withdrawal, Tu was moved up into Pool A for the next round. But it was not all luck: “The selectors saw how I was playing and training at the Queensland Tennis Center, and decided to give me a wildcard into the higher group.”

Keen to seize the opportunity, Tu did not disappoint. He notched up wins over players ranked around 500 on the ATP Tour, and in perhaps his best performance, lost a close match to Akira Santillan 3–6, 7–5, 7–10. Santillan is ranked No. 280 on the ATP Tour and has a career-high ranking of No. 144.

Far exceeding his expectations, Tu ended up losing in the finals of Group A.

When Tu was younger, a loss would have impacted him heavily. He wouldn’t have had motivation to train for days after coming out on the wrong end of a tennis match.

“What’s changed for me is that now I feel like I have found a way to compete that’s true to myself. In my junior days, I used to focus on the stuff that wasn’t important—and I used to just freeze up. Now I feel a lot more comfortable.

“I also don’t take losses that hard anymore. With big wins, I used to be really happy. But with losses, I used to be really down. Now it’s pretty neutral; if I win, that’s great; If I lose, that means I just need to get back to work.”

The new mentality was evident after the losses he suffered in Queensland. “I lost two matches in Brisbane, and the next day I was still keen to train and get better. That wasn’t the case when I was a junior. Coaching has really helped in that regard. I have to set an example for the players I teach; a lot of kids are looking up to me so hopefully I can be an example for them.”

Today, Tu’s performances in Adelaide and Brisbane have motivated him to keep going.He plans to use a small training block to prepare for the upcoming UTR Pro Series events in either Brisbane, Sydney, or Melbourne. The bigger picture? Tu wants to travel and compete in Futures and hopefully beyond. “Next year’s goal is to get back on the ATP Tour. The goal for the end of 2021 is to have a ranking of about 500. And then figure things out as I progress along my path.”

Tennis-wise, Tu is already there, having secured wins over players ranked at that level. But Tu is realistic about the chances of success on tour. “It’s not easy to get such a high ranking. It’s about being able to produce at that level throughout the whole year—week by week. You have to be consistent. For example, during my three weeks in the Pro Tennis Series in Brisbane, I felt great for the first couple of weeks. But by the last week, I was a little burnt out physically.”

Tu is aware of how much fitness factors into performing well as a professional. That is his next focus. “If I go to Europe again to play Futures, I’ll need to produce a good level for six weeks or so. So that was my main takeaway from playing in Brisbane. That’s what I’m going to work on.”

Though that might have been his immediate learning from his time in Queensland, Tu’s new, more relaxed growth mindset seems to be his greatest new asset.

He started his UTR Pro Tennis Series campaign in Adelaide with a UTR of 12.72. After a few months of competition, at the time of writing, it currently sits at 13.24.

Coaching—and knowing that he is now an example to his younger students—has offered Li Tu some much needed perspective. Losses are not morale-destroying events anymore; they are simply a part of being a tennis player.

The individual nature of tennis can be challenging to many athletes who compete on that 78 foot x 36 foot court. We all know of talented juniors who couldn’t make it to the professional tours because they took losses too hard, or they didn’t have the appropriate mental architecture to deal with all the ways that tennis can challenge and torture its competitors.

Maybe that was Tu once.

Whether that will be the Tu of the future is something we’ll have to wait and see. But from all we’ve heard, it seems unlikely.

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