At the ripe old age of 19, Katerina Stewart has accomplished a lot in the tennis world. She won back-to-back USTA Pro Circuit women's titles last spring, she reached #158 in the WTA rankings, played the French Open twice, and earned $91,000 in prize money. The video above is of her first round win in the 2014 U.S. Open qualifiers; the same year she made the main draw in doubles. This year, she'll be lucky to even catch a match on TV when the tournament kicks off next Monday.
Private Stewart is forgoing the tour for Uncle Sam.
Yesterday, the New York Times published an interesting profile, which you should really read, on the up-and-comer who is now officially a member of the Army, and a current student at Army's prep school, before hopefully becoming a full cadet next fall. And while it isn't unheard of for a world-class athlete to come out of the Academies—"The Admiral" David Robinson comes to mind—her situation, leaving a career behind to join the service, is more akin to Pat Tillman's. According to reporter Cindy Shmerler, she is the first woman to ditch pro tennis in favor of enlistment.
Stewart would like to play tennis at Army, but she won't be able to do so until 2018, so it may have a drastic effect on her career, should she want to resume it.
"I love watching the young players in the opening rounds. I saw Stewart a few times, she's got a really good game. She plays a very American style, huge forehand, big groundstrokes, and is great in doubles, which will serve her well in college where nearly everyone plays both," says Caitlin Thompson, a former D-I tennis player at Missouri who co-hosts the podcast The Main Draw, and co-founded the delightful new quarterly Racquet. "It is a huge athletic risk however. I admire that Stewart is going this route for altruistic reasons, but from a strictly tennis perspective, it is a bit of a head-scratcher."
Money isn't the whole ball of felt either. Stewart's expenses exceeded her earnings, which is why she's college eligible, but she's still leaving money on the table. And of course, injuries are always a possibility, Thompson herself admits to falling down a flight of stairs at a kegger and twisting her ankle, which didn't end up being serious, but is the kind of thing that happens in college. (Admittedly less likely at West Point than Mizzou.) Thompson says there's one other element that factors in, coaching.
"There are exceptions, but my worst coach by several factors was in college," she says. "It's simple math. There is a lot more money in the professional ranks, but also in coaching juniors, so few college athletes get world-class training. It can be a springboard, John McEnroe went to Stanford for a year, but there is no precedent for West Point. Fortunately for Stewart, champions have gotten older from the teenage days of Hingis and Capriati. Her story is a compelling one and I'm interested to see where it goes."
Stewart is fully committed to Army, saying she wishes she'd made the decision two years ago. She's already a platoon leader and looks forward to hitting the courts down the line. In an age when sports leagues bend-over-backward to wrap themselves in giant flags while looking up at flyovers, Stewart stands out for actually serving her country, at great personal sacrifice, instead of play-acting for television cameras. Time will tell if it affects her career. For now, tennis has to wait.