Feature: Culford’s tennis duo aim to make their mark

HIGH HOPES: Culford School pupils Harry Wendelken and Kylie Bilchev recorded impressive results in 2016
HIGH HOPES: Culford School pupils Harry Wendelken and Kylie Bilchev recorded impressive results in 2016
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While the likes of Sir Andy Murray and Johanna Konta have been leading the charge for the Brits in the Australian Open this week, there are two Culford School pupils who are making their own mark on the tennis scene.

Harry Wendelken, 15, and Kylie Bilchev, 13, are in the early stages of a journey which they hope will see them reach the top of the sport.

The two teenagers, who are both part of Culford’s High Performance Tennis Programme, enjoyed breakthrough successes last year and are both equally as ambitious to achieve even more during 2017.

“I’m probably most proud of winning the Under-14s Nationals last year,” Wendelken said.

“It’s quite an important tournament for me, and obviously it shows as I won it I’m the best in my age group.

“All the tournaments I’ve won were good but that was probably my favourite one.”

Bilchev ended 2016 by being awarded the Suffolk Sport Young Sports Personality of the Year Award, capping a year which saw her break into the top 10 of the Tennis Europe Under-14 Girls rankings.

“I played in quite a few Tennis Europe events last year,” she said. “I won two Grade 2s, one Grade 3 and some doubles titles and at the end of the year I played in the Orange Ball International and finished fifth.”

Wendelken has spent the last 18 months playing on the ITF Junior Circuit, which pits the best junior tennis players aged 18 and under from around the world against each other.

Earlier this month, the Horseheath-based teen recorded his best singles run on the tour, reaching the semi-finals of the SALK Open in Sweden.

At the end of each year the tour crowns a junior world champion, a title which was previously won by Roger Federer, Andy Roddick and Ivan Lendl.

“I was in Sweden two weeks ago and I did very well there,” Wendelken said.

“I got to my first semi-final of an ITF, so hopefully I can get my ranking up.

“I’ve got the Winter Cup for GB coming up too. I just want to improve, get better and see how it goes.”

Bilchev’s new year on the Tennis Europe circuit started this week at the Nike Junior International Bolton Teen Tennis, and on Wednesday she defeated America’s Charlotte Owensby in three sets to reach the semi-finals in the Girls Singles Under-14s draw.

“I’m playing my last Tennis Europe events this year and then I’m going to start playing in the Junior ITFs and get a ranking,” she said.

“I’ll be playing in the Winter Cup as well this year and hopefully I can qualify for the Worlds.

“I just want to keep working hard. My coach (Andrew Richardson) believes in my game and so do I.

“It’s just my mental side and attitude (I need to work on) and whether I can perform in front of many people. I’m trying to work on that, and grunt more too!”

Chris Johnson, who is a performance tennis coach at Culford School and works with Wendelken on his game, says it is not an easy journey to get to the top and explains the sacrifices both youngsters are making already.

“Both will do 15-16 hours on court, plus 5-8 hours off court a week,” he said. “That’s quite a big chunk of their week, plus their academics as well. The academics is obviously very important. It is still very early in their journey but the hardest thing is getting the balance right.

“These two are out playing tournaments abroad 10-15 weeks a year which is quite a big commitment.

“They’re getting help from the teachers, to help them to catch up with school work, they’re a big help.

“They’re missing lots of weeks out travelling and it’s not easy for them. As they get older and get better, everything just gets harder.

“There will be more commitment, more sacrifices to make, everything ramps up.”

Along with tennis, Culford School also runs high performance programmes in swimming and golf, with each pupil receiving a tailored timetable to integrate any tournaments they are scheduled to play in.

“I’m now in my second year at Culford,” Wendelken said. “I’ve had massive jumps since being here.

“It’s a step up from where I was at, and Culford give me a lot of opportunities. They help me to go on trips I might not have been able to go on.”

Bilchev added: “I think it’s been really amazing for me. It is my third year here and I’m really glad to have found a coach who understands me and believes in me.

“I’ve really moved upwards in the rankings internationally, and also the school has helped me with my academics.

“They really understand when I’m not here in classes. Culford attracts a lot of players at the moment and it’s good to hit with them.”