As another action-packed day of tennis at the Rothesay Open Nottingham draws to a close, spectators’ eyes are growing weary until Alastair Gray takes Centre Court.
Gray bobbles the ball on his racquet sets his feet, bounces the ball once, twice, then raises his arm high into the sky, fingers splayed, taking aim as he telegraphs the ball to the exact apex he wants. Only for a second it stays before Gray whips the racquet round, and then it’s gone.
The gunshot sound of his serve echoes around the court, and there’s very little his opponent Fernando Verdasco can do but mutter good serve.
In reaction, Verdasco’s team converse in hushed hurried Spanish. They must be thinking the same as him. How do you stop a serve like that?
The answer? Not easily. By the end of the match, Gray finishes with 14 aces.
Then there are his groundstrokes, another equally dangerous weapon. They’re clean, strong, and fast. Very fast. A loud HAH escapes Verdasco mid-rally as if to say, are you kidding me?
Still, the signs of Gray’s inexperience are there.
They trip him up in this match against Verdasco, who remains defensively resilient, enticing the 23-year-old into errors.
In what is Gray’s third Challenger tournament of the year, the 171 ranking difference between the two is not as evident on the court as it is on paper.
But still Gray is unable to close out his 5-2 tie-break lead on the former No.7 in the second set and loses the match 6-7(3) 6-7(6).
Speaking to Gray afterwards, he remains upbeat when reflecting on the loss.
He said: “I absolutely loved it. Playing against someone like Verdasco on Centre Court was great. I felt very comfortable out there.
“I was able to put my game out on the court for the most part, and it was a very tight 7-6 7-6, so I am happy with how I was able to deal with that.”
No stranger to Nottingham having reached the Quarterfinals in the ITF M25 event at the beginning of May, Gray also enjoyed the atmosphere.
He said: “The crowd was great. It was a bit late, so maybe there weren’t as many people as today, but I loved it. That’s why I play tennis, to play matches like that.”
Gaining experience in the US
While some talents burst onto the world stage, à la Carlos Alcaraz, others need time to develop and grow physically.
One alternative route available is playing in the US NCAA Divisions.
Players can then study while pursuing their playing career, which provides them with a back-up in case of injury or an option to do something other than tennis.
That was the case for Gray, who decided to play for Texas Christian University (TCU) in Fort Worth, Texas.
TCU has seen numerous professional tennis players walk through their halls, including the current British No.1 for men’s singles, Cameron Norrie.
Believing that the move was fundamental for his growth as a player, Gray said:
“I think it was great because I wasn’t ready to play pro tennis when I was 18, physically and game-wise, so playing in college is a nice bridge between the juniors and the pro tournaments.
“I feel like I progressed a lot out there, and now I am ready to play.”
However, playing in the US was not always the route Gray anticipated.
He said: “It wasn’t in my plans, but I always wanted to be a professional tennis player. It wasn’t till I was about 17 years old that I decided to make a move to go to America.”
That experience of playing in the US has also proved vital in transitioning to the professional scene.
At the beginning of the year in February, the Twickenham tennis star won back-to-back ITF singles titles at M25 events in Shrewsbury and Glasgow.
Then in March, he reached his first ATP Challenger level Quarterfinal in Saint Brieuc, and has since risen to 289 in the rankings.
He said: “Well, I’ve predominantly been on the ITF Futures circuit. This is my third challenger of the year. I’ve really enjoyed being on the circuit and am looking forward to playing predominantly Challengers.
“Getting used to those tournaments, the level, and all those experiences are important because it’s a step up from the futures, that’s for sure, so I look forward to making that transition.”
While excited about the future, Gray remains firmly grounded at the moment focusing on improving his game:
“I think I’m playing good tennis and ready to push on. I’ve had quite a good rise; it probably won’t go as quickly as it has been, but I feel like my tennis, and my game is ready to take another step up. I think all the experiences of playing week in and week out will be great for me, and I’m just really looking forward to it.
“I take things pretty slowly, pretty immediate and just try to take care of what I can control with what I am trying to work on in my game and then the results will take care of themselves.”