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

Regina's Keegan Rice competed at the Australian Open in the junior boys singles and doubles categories. (Tennis Saskatchewan - image credit)
Regina's Keegan Rice competed at the Australian Open in the junior boys singles and doubles categories. (Tennis Saskatchewan - image credit)

Keegan Rice was just five years old when his parents put him in a learn-to-play tennis program.

He's been swinging a racket ever since. Now he has made his debut on tennis's biggest stage, having played in the recent Australian Open.

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

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

Rice's parents enrolled him in a camp at the Lakeshore Tennis Club the summer after that first lesson. That fall his first coach, Denise Fernandez, invited him to the Tennis Saskatchewan program.

"There was just something about him," said Fernandez, director of tennis for Tennis Saskatchewan. "His ability to see the ball and be able to time the ball, especially at that age was exceeding every other child that was in his group."

He excelled despite being young and small.

"I think his racket was almost the size of him, so he would walk and sometimes he'd be dragging his racket a little bit," she said.

Richard Agecoutay/CBC News
Richard Agecoutay/CBC News

Rice has not only become the Canadian junior boys champ, in January he debuted at the Australian Open, one of the sport's four annual major tournaments, in the junior boys singles and doubles events.

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

"I got to play my first round doubles match on Court 3, it was in an arena," he said. "We were playing 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 was just gonna do my best."

Tennis Saskatchewan
Tennis Saskatchewan

Rice went out in the second round of doubles and dropped his first singles match, but said he gained a lot of experience.

"I'll know how to really handle and deal with all of the feelings next time. I think there's a lot to learn."

Fernandez said Rice's biggest strength is his mental toughness and competitiveness.

"We don't have all the resources like every other province does in Canada," she said. "But he has that mental part where you know he'll give anything and he'll find ways to win."

Rice has played around Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, but said the Aussie Open had a different atmosphere.

"It was such a professional environment. I was more secluded, away from the fans and I felt like a real pro," he said.

"In the locker-rooms, just in the gym, you're surrounded by [the top players in the game] lots of the time, so you have to almost act like that too and not be a fan, even if you want to."

WATCH | 16-year-old Regina tennis phenom plays in Australian Open:

Rice was recently named Saskatchewan's male youth athlete of the year.

His Lakeshore tennis club mate Teah Chavez was named female youth athlete of the year.

Chavez has committed to play next season for the Ohio State University's women's tennis team.

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

"The little ones, they all know who they are and 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'll hit with them."

Tennis Saskatchewan
Tennis Saskatchewan

Rice will soon be heading back to train at the National Training Centre in Montreal.

He'll be playing in junior tournaments, along with some men's professional tournaments.

"Depending on my results, I'll see where I can go," he said. "I might be heading down to California or I could be playing my next tournament in France."

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

"I have to do final exams coming up really soon. I unfortunately missed them in Australia. It's just been a busy life for me, especially these past couple months, but I'm enjoying it," Rice said.

"I get to live and do exactly what I love — play tennis every single day."