Growing up as a younger brother can bring out the ultimate competitiveness in anyone. And for Theo Murphy, looking up to his older brother, Nicholas, did just that.
Theo, who is two years younger, was eager to try and out duel his brother in whatever sporting event or competition they could find.
“It gave me something to chase and try to reach for. He was older than me, and bigger and better at sports at the time,” recalls Theo. “I always used to say to him, ‘Your two years older than me, wait until I’m your age. I’d beat you if we were the same age.’ I would try to put myself in his shoes, and I couldn’t wait to see where I would be when I was older. That always motivated me.”
That included tennis, and the more Theo watched Nicholas play, the more he wanted to play as well. To this day, he still looks up to his brother, and is a major reason why he began playing tennis in the first place.
He first began playing tennis when he was very young, playing in the camp at East Hampton Indoor Tennis on Long Island. He displayed a talent for the sport from a very early age so his parents decided to enroll him in lessons, and soon after that he was competing in tournaments.
As his talent grew, Murphy was playing at both East Hampton and the John McEnroe Tennis Academy at Sportime Randall’s Island, and would continue rising up the junior rankings. In fact, as the No. 3 ranked player in the Eastern Section in 2016, he had the unforgettable experience of performing the coin toss prior to the U.S. Open semifinal between Novak Djokovic and Gael Monfils.
Murphy then entered tryouts for the USTA Player Development Program at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, a program which selected only a few players per age group.
“I knew it was prestigious and hard to get into, but I wasn’t sure how well I would play so I just went into it trying to play my best,” said Murphy, the youngest player to be accepted into the program. “I was able to meet a few kids there who are still my friends today so it was a great experience. There were hundreds of the best kids from across the country, with some even coming from Europe, so ultimately being picked for it was a huge confidence boost for me. I think being in that group was a big reason why I had success early on in my junior tournaments, and I’m really thankful that I got to play at that level and compete with those players.”
But because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the program would be halted, and Murphy began training exclusively at JMTA. It was an important step for him as he got to compete against some of the program’s best players, regardless of age, something he was used to in competing against his older brother, and which would help him prepare for tournaments where he was playing in an older group.
“When I first got to Randall’s Island, I came in as a younger kid but were competing against kids who were older,” said Murphy. “I think that playing up in age was a huge help for me, and being able to compete against players who hit heavier and play up in competition helped me develop my own power game and improve my game overall. When you get to the top of your age division, it’s a must to play up in the older divisions, so being able to do that in practice and in my training sessions really prepared me for the tournaments.”
The better he got, the more intensive his tournament and training became, which forced him and his family to decide what to do about his education. While the school he was attending had great academics, it did not provide the necessary flexibility that Murphy needed. There was one instance in particular that made that abundantly clear.
“I was about 10-years-old and competing in a ‘Little Mo’ event, and my partner and I were the top seed. The weather in Florida is unpredictable, and it ended up raining for a couple of days in a row,” he recalls. “We knew I had to be back in school and couldn’t spend any extra time in Florida, so I actually had to go to my partner and tell him the situation, and we had to pull out of the event.”
As Murphy visited many schools, one in particular stuck out. When his family toured Professional Children’s School, they knew it was the place to maximize Theo’s academics and tennis.
Enter Professional Children’s School.
“Words can’t describe the flexibility I have now, and the change to Professional Children’s School has been amazing,” said Murphy. “When we first toured it, I was getting ready to enter seventh grade, I remember even in the first week I knew this was where I was going to be for high school. I went to them with my tennis schedule and they instantly knew how they were going to work around it. They said we’ll put all of the classes in the morning so you are done at 12:30, and can be at practice by 1:00. It’s been like that for two years now and has been perfect for me.”
That flexibility has been integral in Murphy’s development over the last couple of years, and has allowed him to find the balance between academics and tennis, with neither one taking a backseat to the other. He is a dedicated student with academics as a priority, and PCS has only accelerated that.
“Being able to tell Professional Children’s School that I am going to be gone for a couple of weeks, they say it’s not a problem. They give me extensions on assignments, and do whatever is needed so I don’t have to stress about school while I’m away. It’s helped my tennis tremendously.”
With that peace of mind, he continues to work hard in his training sessions to become the best player he can be.
“I’ve always played up in age so I’ve always tried to make my serve a big focus of my game. If you don’t have a strong serve, these older kids are going to attack it,” he explained. And ever since I was younger, I have tried to have the best footwork possible. I do a lot of fitness to help with my footwork and want to make sure I am in the best shape possible so I can be prepared for anything.”
Murphy is approaching the end of his sophomore year and is excited for what lies ahead in his future. While he would love to one day have a chance at a professional tennis career, his focus now is primarily on improving his tennis, being a great student and using both of those to get a college education.
“I still look up to my brother and try to follow in his footsteps. He is a senior in high school now and a great student, so I want to become the best student I can be,” he said. “Every kid has the dream of becoming a professional tennis player, and that door is still open and something I strive for. But my main goals are to continue getting a great education and go on to play collegiate tennis.”
In the interim, Theo will continue to use his great education at Professional Children’s School and his top training at JMTA to become the best person he can be both on the court and in the classroom.
Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for New York Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at email@example.com