While most college students will spend their Fourth of July weekend barbecuing with family and friends, Collin Altamirano will compete in a tennis tournament in Italy.
Altamirano, 19, will play in lower-level professional tournaments as an amateur for the next six weeks, hoping to continue the success he’s had this year.
In his first semester at Virginia this spring, Altamirano was the Rookie of the Year for the Intercollegiate Tennis Association Atlantic Region. He also made the all-tournament team in singles and doubles after helping the Cavaliers upset top-seeded Oklahoma in Waco, Texas, for the NCAA championship on May 19.
Despite Altamirano’s success, his grueling schedule combining tennis and college has made him jealous of his peers, especially when he sees them enjoying the summer.
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“Man, these guys are on vacation for two months, just relaxing and enjoying themselves, not playing and not doing anything, and I’m out here putting six to eight hours in,” said the 6-foot-2, 185-pound Altamirano, who plans to return to Virginia for his sophomore year. “But at the same time, I get to play (in professional tournaments), which is pretty fortunate. I couldn’t be happier about that.”
Altamirano decided to attend Virginia after consulting his longtime coach and friend, Joseph Gilbert, whom he has known since he was 6 years old. Over the years, they have created a bond that goes beyond player and coach.
“I think (Gilbert) saw something in Collin (and) his potential, and Collin saw the same in (Gilbert),” said Anne Hall, Altamirano’s mother. “Even though Collin was a little kid when (Gilbert) first started with him, I think there was just a connection, and it remained.”
Hall, who had taken lessons from Gilbert at Rio del Oro Racquet Club, convinced Gilbert to coach Collin. Gilbert said he was apprehensive at first, because he was just ending his playing career, but he finally agreed to coach Altamirano as a side project after seeing his talent.
“It’s pretty easy to see at (a young age) which one is ahead of the curve,” Gilbert said. “I wouldn’t say that he was way ahead of the curve, but he was ahead of the curve.”
Gilbert wasn’t Altamirano’s exclusive coach until he was 12, when Hall told Gilbert that she couldn’t find a coach in Santa Barbara, where she had moved, who connected with her son. Gilbert took Altamirano to Florida to compete in the Junior Orange Bowl and then convinced Hall to let her son live with him in Sacramento to train. Four years ago, Gilbert left his position as Rio del Oro’s tennis director and started JMG Tennis in Sacramento, with Altamirano as his first student.
Altamirano said living with his coach was more exciting than awkward, because they already knew each other, and the toughest part was getting used to the independence Gilbert gave him.
“I wasn’t great at handling the everyday life, especially without bothering him, so I got in a lot of trouble for that, and then when he added his wife to the picture, it got even tougher because now the house had to be spotless,” Altamirano said. “The tennis part became easy after that.”
At 12, Altamirano was cooking his meals, doing his own laundry, biking to where he needed to be and setting up his own matches. Giving him freedom and responsibility was Gilbert’s way of grooming Altamirano to become a successful tennis player.
“I wanted to show him what it took to be a professional because at the end of the day, (tennis is) an individual sport and it’s up to him to be able to take care of himself,” Gilbert said.
Their living situation also was a challenge for Gilbert, who was single at the time. Altamirano spent weekends with his father, who lived in Yuba City, to give Gilbert some space. Gilbert said living with his student prepared him for being a father; he now has a 2-year old daughter with his wife, former Sacramento State All-American tennis player Margarita Karnaukhova from Russia.
SURPRISE VICTORY RAISES EXPECTATIONS
After Altamirano became the first unseeded player to win the USTA Boys 18 National Championships two years ago, expectations increased, and the pressure caused some tension between Altamirano and Gilbert. But they got through it by spending some time away from each other.
“It was a tough year, we had a lot of blow-ups, but we always knew we had the best interest in each other,” Gilbert said. “Now it’s great. I think that break did that for both of us. We missed each other – I missed him, I know he missed me – and so we were excited to see each other.”
That victory in Kalamazoo, Mich., earned Altamirano a main-draw wild card into the 2013 U.S. Open, where he was the youngest player in the field at 17. Despite losing to No. 22 seed Philipp Kohlschreiber in the first round, Altamirano said the experience opened other opportunities for him.
Later that year, he trained for two weeks with Roger Federer in Dubai, then was selected to be a practice partner for the U.S. Davis Cup team in 2014.
That year, he also had to decide if he would turn pro or go to college. Gilbert said he advised Altamirano to go to college because he wanted him to experience living on his own and become more mature, and Altamirano agreed.
“I had to learn to deal with things I didn’t enjoy,” Altamirano said. “I play tennis all day, and that was for myself. I didn’t know if I lived a selfish lifestyle, but over here everything I did affected me, and (in Virginia) everything I did affected a group of people, and that was new and different.”
Altamirano said the hardest adjustment was being a part of a team and spending time building chemistry with teammates. He said it also was a challenge working with new coaches.
“I was not the greatest listener when it came to other people,” he said. “I had to kind of let go and trust everybody else over there, and I’m glad I did because I learned a lot.”
The Virginia coaches were constantly in contact with Gilbert, giving regular updates. And Altamirano said he called Gilbert more than he called his parents.
BACK HOME – BUT NOT FOR LONG
In his first summer as a college student, Altamirano decided to return to Sacramento and work with Gilbert when not playing in tournaments.
“I wanted to come back home,” he said, “and do the basics.”
His tennis home now is Arden Hills, where Gilbert moved his academy in 2013. JMG Tennis has grown into one of the most prestigious youth programs, with some of the top-ranked players in the country.
Gilbert isn’t with Altamirano in Italy, and the trip will be a learning experience for both. As Altamirano matures, the dynamic of their relationship evolves, Gilbert said.
“It’s extremely a lot of work but extremely rewarding at the same time. And like I said, the relationship we have, no matter what happens in tennis, 10 years from now, he’s like an uncle to my daughter, and my family,” Gilbert said.
Altamirano disagrees, laughing at his coach’s comment, insisting they will have 15 more years together.
“I trust (Gilbert) – it would be hard to get him away from me,” Altamirano said.