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Palmer matches tennis victory with off-court grit

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It took grit and sacrifice for 12-year-old Herzlia student Rafael Palmer to rise through the tennis ranks to the point that he was finally selected for Western Province.

His tennis enthusiast dad, Gary, says these traits are some of the secrets behind his son’s progression to making the province’s under-13 tennis team and winning all his recent matches in George in the Western Cape.

“Tennis isn’t a team sport and can be hard and lonely on the court, especially when things aren’t going well,” says Gary. “Rafa’s friends all play soccer, so it was tough for him without his school friends at the tournaments. He also found it lonely because most of the kids at the tournaments speak Afrikaans as their first language. But over time, Rafa has made good friends from different cultures and backgrounds.”

Palmer played in quite a few tournaments to make the Western Province team, eventually playing against other top players in the Western Cape and being selected to play for the province.

“I’m the only kid from Herzlia,” Palmer says. “There are a lot of Afrikaans kids, so it was hard to understand them in the beginning, but now they just speak English to me.”

Gary, who played tennis growing up in Port Elizabeth, got his son into tennis when he was about five. “I loved it, and have been playing ever since,” Palmer says.

They were living across the road from a tennis club, so Gary used to take him there most days after work. “When he was small, he would run around and pick up the balls while his older sister was playing,” Gary reminisces. “He started tennis lessons from a young age, and was encouraged to play matches and participate in tournaments.”

Palmer has won many Wilson tennis tournaments. “I played for my squad academy last month against a visiting team from Plettenberg Bay, and we beat them. I played in the MTG All Africa tournament, and won my age group and the under-14 age group as well. My biggest achievement so far is making Western Province.”

Palmer spends five hours a week playing squad tennis and attends his own tennis lessons for two hours a week. “Close to tournaments, I play extra matches against my dad or other kids I know through tennis.”

He plays tennis for his school and at the Fresnaye and Pinelands tennis clubs. “I like the thrill of the game, the fun I have on court, and the competitiveness,” he says.

He aspires to represent South Africa at the Maccabi Games, to keep winning tournaments, and to go to a tennis academy overseas one day.

The sport has given Palmer and his father a great opportunity to bond. Gary says it’s fun to travel with his son to different venues around the Western and Southern Cape for tournaments. “We also watch tennis together, especially when Roger Federer was playing. Now, we watch a lot of Carlos Alcaraz.

“I’ve learned a lot about myself in motivating and bringing out the best in Rafa. It wasn’t always smooth sailing between the two of us on the court. Every child is motivated differently, and there’s definitely not a one-size-fits-all approach to assisting your kids in achieving their best. I had to find a balance between encouragement and pushing a little too hard.”

When the Palmers play against each other, the games sometimes get a little tense. “The matches are becoming a lot more competitive, and the sets are getting closer,” Gary says. “I think he’s getting close to beating me.”

Gary, who coached tennis when he was at university and played premier league tennis in London and Cape Town, says keeping tennis fun and having the right coach has helped his son perform well on the court.

“There were times when Rafa put a lot of pressure on himself, but his coach stressed that at his age, he needs to have fun playing tennis and not take it too seriously. A good coach explains that while losing is hard, winning isn’t everything. How you play the game is just as important as the result. We try to emphasise the importance of good sportsmanship on and off the court.”

Palmer can be seen congratulating an opponent who hits a great shot, and taking his cap off when walking to the net to shake hands.

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