Making a racquet: A quest to help Pacific tennis thrive

Thursday 27 May 2021 | Written by Supplied | Published in Other Sports, Sports

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Making a racquet: A quest to help Pacific tennis thrive
Cook Islands tennis player Brett Baudinet at the Pacific Nations Cup in Fiji. 19052902

Twenty-one years on from his Davis Cup debut, tennis veteran Brett Baudinet says being able to represent the Cook Islands and the Pacific on the world stage remains a huge honour.

Brett Baudinet runs five businesses and is raising a two-and-a-half-year-old boy - but he always finds time for tennis.

The 39-year-old grew up with a racquet in hand: his parents, June and Brian, both represented the Cook Islands, while his dad even played against Bjorn Bjorg in Junior Wimbledon.

“He got smashed,” chuckled Baudinet, the younger.

“My whole family has played: my dad and his brothers always hit the ball so I’ve been around it ever since I was obviously born.

“By the time I was five years old and picking up balls for them they gave me a racquet and I hit the very first ball right over the net and never stopped since so yeah I love it.”

Baudinet represented his country for the first time when he was eight years old, at the Aotearoa Māori Tennis Championships in New Zealand, and said the Cook Islands national coach, Malcolm Kajer, who is still in the role today, played a major role in his development.

“We got to travel over to New Zealand and play against the best players there and we were beating them,” he recalled.

“When I moved to New Zealand for school, I went to Kings College and in my first year I became the number one under 14-year-old in New Zealand so that’s when I knew I had something and to keep going with it.”

After completing high school, the previous year, Baudinet made his Davis Cup debut in February 2000, representing Pacific Oceania in the Asia/Oceania Group Three tie in Sri Lanka.

Later in the year he moved to the United States after being awarded a scholarship to the University of Michigan, although he admitted there weren’t many on campus who had heard of the Cook Islands.

“They had no idea - people would say is that somewhere in Jamaica? They just didn’t have a clue. I used to always tell them, the easiest way to explain it was if you know where Hawaii is, you take Hawaii and the equator and you flip it over that's exactly where the Cook Islands is.”

After completing his studies, Baudinet spent six months trying to carve out a living on the international tennis circuit before the gruelling travel schedule and mounting costs proved too much.

The 2018 Cook Islands Sportsman of the Year said the Pacific Islands produced a huge amount of talented tennis players but opportunities are tough to come by.

“Where it falls short here is that the kids get to the 15/16/17 year old age bracket and they’ve actually got nothing to look forward to because there's no pathway put in front of them,” he said.

“I’ve sort of been trying to encourage more of that with our sports associations here to say we should be putting together programmes and (working with) former top athletes that have a connection in the United States or wherever it might be with scholarship opportunities, so we can say to them we've got these doors open and if you train hard enough and go through the programme you can actually move on to get those scholarships.”

Baudinet is currently training Cook Islands teenager Ruby Pierre in Rarotonga, who recently returned from New Zealand, in an effort to help the 17 year earn a scholarship to the US.

“I’m working with Danny Llarenas, my old doubles partner, who is a coach out in the US as well for universities out there, and also an old teammate of mine, who was also a doubles partner player (in Davis Cup), West Knott.

“West actually took his previous school and team to the number one in the US for women’s tennis, so sort of trying to work with those guys with getting some connections to look for scholarship opportunities for Ruby.”

He said moving to places like Michigan can be a culture shock coming from the Pacific Islands but said the opportunity to get a top education and play against top players from all around the world was priceless.

“I mean the tennis facilities we had: we had eight indoor courts, 22 outdoor courts, private physios, trainers, the whole nine yards.

“It really just blew my mind away but I was fortunate enough coming from New Zealand where I had a little bit of experience with that sort of stuff. But it’s not to say that these kids can’t do it so I do hope we do get a few more of our Pacific players out there.”

Brett Baudinet returned to Rarotonga about nine years ago, having also spent time living in chilly Chicago before the warm weather and pull of family brought him home.

While working in the tourism sector kept him busy during the day – yes, he’s excited for the travel bubble that’s just opened up with New Zealand – the desire to get out on court remained as strong as ever.

He holds the record for most overall wins and most appearances for the Pacific Oceania Davis Cup team and will captain the team for the first time in August, after the Asia/Oceania Group Three event was postponed by two months because of Covid-19.

Twenty-one years on from his debut, he said being able to represent the Cook Islands and the Pacific on the world stage remained a huge honour.

“You’re not just doing it for yourself, you’re not just doing it for your family but you’re doing it for the whole country and the neat thing too for the Pacific Oceania team is we're actually doing it for the whole Pacific.

“We’re one of the two nations that participate in Davis Cup tennis that actually represent multiple countries under the one team so it’s a very unique position in itself but I couldn’t be more honoured to get out there and do it every year.”

Baudinet said it was a tough ask for Pacific Oceania to compete against players who are full-time tennis professionals and have bigger budgets and more time together on the road.

But the team consistently punched above its weight while conditions have improved in recent years, with players no longer needing to dip into their own pockets to fund their travels, he said. Pacific Oceania, which includes Colin Sinclair from the Northern Marianas, Papua New Guinea's Matthew Stubbings and Clement Mainguy from Vanuatu, have targeted a top three finish in Vietnam later this year to win promotion to the World Group Two Playoffs.

Until then it’s back to work and back to training. His dad is still hitting balls at 73 so it’s not like he has an excuse to slack off.

But what about his own son, Blake - is there another budding tennis champion in the Baudinet family?

“Every parent sort of says, ‘oh my kid can play whatever he likes’. He obviously is going to pick his sport but I’ve naturally got racquets and tennis balls all over the place so I think he’ll be pretty excited to play the game.”

  • Champions of the Pacific/RNZ