Four years ago, rising tennis star Collin Altamirano of Yuba City saw the world's best players at the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows, N.Y.
He tagged along with his coach, Joseph Gilbert of Sacramento, and Kevin Kim, a professional playing in the tournament and a longtime friend of Gilbert's.
"That was huge motivation for me," Altamirano said. "I got to see how Kevin and the other pros acted, the lifestyle, the environment."
Altamirano also will attend this year's U.S. Open, but this time the 17-year-old will play.
He earned a wild card into the men's draw by winning the United States Tennis Association Boys 18 Nationals title Aug. 11 in Kalamazoo, Mich.
Altamirano beat No. 14 seed Jared Donaldson of Cumberland, R.I., 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 in the final, becoming the first unseeded player to win the tournament in its 71-year history. In the semifinals, Altamirano walloped No. 1 seed Gage Brymer of Irvine 6-0, 6-1.
"It was good timing," said Gilbert, who started working with Altamirano when he was 6. "He played some of his best tennis and put everything together in what is the most prestigious junior tournament in the nation."
In winning the event, Altamirano joined greats Dennis Ralston, Rod Laver and Stan Smith as national 18 champions.
In his first match at the U.S. Open, Altamirano could face one of the world's best: Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray or Roger Federer. Pairings will be announced Thursday, when Altamirano arrives in New York.
"That would be pretty awesome," Altamirano said. "I'd love to play one of those guys. It would make a dream experience even better."
It would also be a nice reward for Altamirano's years of dedication to the sport, which started when he hit balls in Elk Grove with his mother, Anne, and his older sister, Ali, when he was 5.
He began taking lessons with Gilbert, who had been tutoring his mother, a year later. The pairing turned into a fortuitous relationship for both.
A talented youth player, Gilbert helped Boise State earn a No. 2 national ranking as a player, but he saw "creating players better than myself" as his true mission.
"Collin had a lot of focus. His attention span was longer than your typical 6-year-old," Gilbert said. "He was OK being by himself. He enjoyed hitting on the wall, whereas most kids that age would find it boring."
The union was broken for three years after Collin and his mother moved to Santa Barbara. They were reunited when Collin was 12 after he and Gilbert bonded during a tournament in Florida.
"I invited Joseph," Altamirano said. "We got along so well. I could see he loved teaching me, that he had a passion for trying to make me the best I could be."
So Altamirano moved in with Gilbert, though he spends most non-tournament weekends with his father, Frank, in Yuba City and makes occasional trips to Santa Barbara to see his mother and stepfather, Wes Barber, an avid fan who played against Collin when he was 10 and 11.
Because of the time and travel demands of his sport, Altamirano has been homeschooled.
"There's just no other way that it can be done if you want to compete at the highest levels," Gilbert said. "Tennis is an all-day thing. There needs to be flexibility with travel. It's not a lifestyle for everybody."
It's a lifestyle, however, that Altamirano has embraced, even through his high school years.
"I love this game," he said. "I've had the passion ever since I was little. I love that I get to travel and see so many new things. I feel pretty lucky."
Gilbert, who started his JMG Tennis Academy three years ago, moved his growing operation to Arden Hills Country Club five months ago. Gilbert and his staff of four now work with 30 junior players, some of whom are on the same track as Altamirano.
The same weekend Altamirano won the Boys 18s, Sacramento's Jenson Brooksby captured the Boys 12s Nationals title in Little Rock, Ark.
Two other academy players, Granite Bay's Kassidy Jump and El Dorado Hills' Brandon Sutter, are headed to Arizona State and Stanford, respectively, to play this fall.
"There is a lot of tennis potential in this town," Gilbert said. "We've been doing this only three years, and we already have a handful of nationally ranked players."
Altamirano's No. 50 USTA ranking and unseeded status for the 18s national championships were misleading. Instead of racking up points competing against teens his own age in junior tournaments, the 6-foot-2 Altamirano has played as an amateur in professional satellite events, sometimes taking his lumps.
So even though the senior is being recruited by dozens of colleges, he could turn pro next summer. He admits he's itching to get started.
No American has dominated men's tennis since Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. The last U.S. man to win a Grand Slam is Andy Roddick in the 2003 U.S. Open.
John Isner is currently the top-ranked American man at No. 14, and only five other Americans are among the ATP's top 100.
"The previous three or four years, it hasn't been so hot," Altamirano said of American men's tennis. "But there are some exciting young players on the way up."
Gilbert thinks Altamirano could play a part in an American men's tennis renaissance.
"There is still a lot of work to be done," he said. "The flip side is that Collin is still not fully physically developed. He's a late bloomer who is used to playing against bigger, stronger guys. So that's been a benefit. He's had to work at it.
"Winning nationals was just a step in the direction of where he wants to be in the future."
Call The Bee's Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.