NORMAN, Okla. - For most high school athletes, a typical day consists of attending school, going to practice and playing in games or matches. But making the grade and making the plays were not the only worries for one OU women’s tennis player.
Single-handedly scheduling international tournaments months in advance, booking travel reservations, assuming the roles of both player and coach, then touring alone was the norm for OU women’s tennis player Gabby Baker.
For many collegiate athletes, playing in international tournaments is a dream come true. But for Baker, competing in tournaments for the Women’s Tennis Association and the International Tennis Federation is goal she has already aced.
When most of her Australian classmates were hitting the books or sunbathing on the beaches of Gold Coast, Australia, Baker was traveling the world playing tennis. Because competitive athletics programs are not offered in Australian high schools and universities, touring professionally was Baker’s only outlet to play competitive tennis.
“We don’t have college athletics,” Baker says. “It’s a completely different system over there. If you want to pursue a professional career in any type of sport, you are going to have to do it on your own through your own funding or through something outside of school. There are no scholarships or any type of opportunities [to play collegiate sports] in Australia like there are here.”
With encouragement from her coach, Baker began touring when she was 15 years old. Right away, she started playing with the big wigs of tennis.
“One of the first tournaments I played was against [men’s professional tennis player] Lleyton Hewitt’s sister,” Baker says. “I lost that match pretty easily because I was rather intimidated playing his sister. But once I got comfortable on the tour, my play got much better. I played against Maria Sharapova in the Australian Open Junior Circuit right before she made her big statement on the professional tour. Anna Kournakova was on my tour after her ranking dropped. It can get pretty overwhelming to know you might be up against girls like Anna Kournakova or Maria Sharapova.”
Baker’s tennis tournaments spanned the world, taking her to the United States, Europe and Southeast Asia. Acting as her booking agent, she sought tournaments in places that provided two elements: hard courts and English speakers.
Traveling alone around the world ranked in the top 400 in the world and the top 15 in Australia makes Baker different from most American athletes. At a young age, she gained experience that made her quickly mature and more easily adapt both on and off the court.
“Playing around the world in tournaments like the Australian Open against the top 100 girls in the world has given me more experience and forced me to be more independent,” Baker says. “My touring has definitely given me more experience and more wisdom on the court. My travels helped me to grow and to mature maybe earlier than some people and become an individual and not rely on people.”
Baker did not have a coach or manager traveling with her, so she had to assume the roles of coach, manager and player. On the tour, she was not only expected to compete, but also be in charge of booking hotel reservations, scheduling tournaments, and making airline reservations based on qualifying in tournaments.
During a year’s break from school and tennis, Baker decided that she loved touring, but she also wanted to opportunity to get an education. Playing at OU gave her the opportunity to have the more balanced life she sought.
Baker says she can’t imagine having it any other way: playing for the OU women’s tennis team while earning a degree.
“I knew I needed something else in my life to balance tennis,” Baker says. “It was such a great opportunity to come over her with a chance to get an education and play tennis. Everything is taken care of here, so all I have to do is study and play tennis. I wanted to definitely follow my education and not waste what I had.”
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