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Regina teen hopes Australian Open is just one of many tennis experiences to come

Keegan Rice was just five years old when his parents sent him to a tennis tutoring program.

He’s been swinging a bat ever since. Now he has made his debut on tennis’s biggest stage, having recently played at the Australian Open.

The 16-year-old Regina tennis player, who is currently the reigning Canadian junior champion, said he fell in love with the game immediately.

“I just really enjoyed it,” he said. “I always wanted to play more with my parents on the weekends and just get in as much as possible.”

Rice’s parents signed him up for camp at the Lakeshore Tennis Club that summer after that first lesson. That fall, his first female coach, Denise Fernandez, invited him to the Tennis Saskatchewan program.

“There was just something about him,” said Fernandez, Tennis Saskatchewan’s director of tennis. “His ability to see the ball and time the ball surpassed any other kid in his group, especially at that age.”

He distinguished himself even though he was young and small.

“I think his racquet was almost as tall as he was, so he would walk and sometimes drag his racquet a little bit,” she said.

Regina's Keegan Rice, 16, is the reigning Canadian Junior Champion and speaks to CBC at the Regina Sportsplex-Fieldhouse.
Reginas Keegan Rice, 16, is the reigning Canadian junior champion and has recently returned from the Australian Open. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC News)

Not only did Rice become Canada’s junior champion, in January he made his debut at the Australian Open, one of the sport’s four annual major tournaments, in the junior singles and doubles events.

He said it was a surreal experience stepping onto the court at the Aussie Open.

“I had to play my doubles game on Court 3 in the first round, it was in an arena,” he said. “We played against Australians, the fans were loud and the atmosphere was just electric.”

He said he was more excited than nervous.

“I was ready to play. I knew I would just do my best.”

Keegan Rice (left) shakes hands with an opponent on the tennis court.  Rice plans to compete in a number of junior tournaments as well as a few pro events in the coming months.
Keegan Rice, 16, plans to play in both junior and pro events in the coming months. (Tennis Saskatchewan)

Rice didn’t win his singles or doubles match but said he gained a lot of experience.

“I’ll know how to really handle and deal with all the feelings next time. I think there is a lot to learn.”

Fernandez said Rice’s greatest strength is his mental toughness and competitiveness.

“We don’t have all the resources like every other province in Canada,” she said. “But he has that mental part where you know he’s going to give it his all and he’ll find ways to win.”

Rice has played in Canada, the United States and Mexico but said the Aussie Open had a different vibe.

“It was such a professional environment. I was more withdrawn, away from the fans and felt like a true professional,” he said.

“In the locker rooms, only in the gym, you’re surrounded by [the top players in the game] often, so you kind of have to behave like that and not be a fan, even if you want to.”

CLOCK | 16-year-old tennis phenom Regina has this to say about playing at the Australian Open:

The 16-year-old tennis phenom from Canada says playing the Australian Open was a surreal experience

Keegan Rice is the reigning Canadian Junior Champion. The 16-year-old Regina tennis player has just returned from his first Australian Open.

Rice was recently named Saskatchewan’s Male Youth Athlete of the Year.

His buddy from Lakeshore Tennis Club Teah Chavez was named Youth Athlete of the Year.

Chavez has signed on to play for the Ohio State University women’s tennis team next season.

Fernandez said younger players now have role models in Rice and Chavez.

“The little ones all know who they are and they want to come and see them,” Fernandez said. “And our older kids in probably the highest training group are so excited when they come back because sometimes they hit them.”

Keegan Rice, 16, holds a trophy on the tennis court.  He returns to Montreal's National Training Center to hone his skills.
Keegan Rice, 16, is returning to Montreal’s National Training Center to hone his skills. (Tennis Saskatchewan)

Rice will soon be back training at the National Training Center in Montreal.

He will compete in junior tournaments along with some men’s professional tournaments.

“Depending on my results I will see where I can go,” he said. “Maybe I’ll travel to California or I’ll play my next tournament in France.”

Trying to juggle a tennis career while still in high school is a lot.

“I have to do final exams very soon. Unfortunately I missed them in Australia. It’s just been a busy life for me, especially the last few months, but I’m enjoying it,” Rice said.

“I can live and do exactly what I love – play tennis every day.”

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