Photo | Michael Shartava
Have you heard the story about a family with two children who excel in tennis? They take them to tournaments around the country. When not on the road, they help their offspring hone their skills through hours of training with coaches.
Your first guess at that family may be Venus and Serena Williams, whose careers were recently chronicled in a film called “King Richard.” Will Smith played the titular role, for which he won a Golden Globe award for Best Actor.
Well, there is a similar story with much closer ties to our area. So, without any further introduction, may I present the Brutkiewicz family of Mobile?
From the beginning
Dr. Carl Brutkiewicz, the father in this tale, had his own success on the tennis court. After first picking up a racket at the age of 11, he won a state championship at 14 as a member of the team at St. Paul’s Episcopal School. He would go on to play at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.
“Since the kids starting playing tennis, I just hit with them and would do drills with them,” Brutkiewicz, who is a family medicine physician in West Mobile, said. “I have held off with competitive tennis since my time is spent watching them or their lessons.”
Barbara Brutkiewicz plays the role of mother. She is also in the medical field, working as a nurse practitioner at USA Children’s & Women’s Hospital.
Philip is their oldest child. They said he played somewhat recreationally until a few years ago.
“He got the tennis bug when he was 9,” his father said. “He has really decided he wants to go as far as he can with tennis.”
The final member of the cast is Thomas. He started playing when he was only 6.
“From the get-go, he has been completely devoted to being the best he can,” his father said.
Leading the way
Philip Brutkiewicz is now 16. Like his father, he is also starring at St. Paul’s. A member of the Class of 2023, he has played No. 1 singles for the Saints over the last two seasons.
Prior to his tennis career, he spent his time playing many other sports. The list included basketball, soccer and Taekwondo.
He recognizes his brother for helping him to concentrate on tennis.
“Playing with Thomas is great,” Philip said. “We really push each other.”
A little sibling competition has helped both players exceed.
“When Thomas came close to beating him, Philip got devoted,” their father said. “Philip saw what Thomas needed to do to get better. He took that information to make his own game better.”
The brothers enter many local and regional tournaments. However, because of their age difference, they have only had to face each other twice.
“We try and avoid that,” their mother said. “We try to pick tournaments that will benefit them both.”
Philip said he normally competes in the 16-and-under age division. But he will enter 18-and-under events at times.
“We play two to three hours a day, six days a week,” Philip said of he and his brother’s routine. “We are always doing some kind of tennis.”
Even with the busy athletic schedule, Philip has not forgotten his other classwork. He takes Advanced Placement classes at St. Paul’s and currently holds a 4.2 GPA.
“His goal at first was to play high school tennis,” Philip’s mother said. “But he is competitive enough to play in college.”
St. Paul’s season recently got started. The state tournament is in April.
“I did well in matches last year, and made the semifinals of our sectionals,” said Philip, who is ranked among the Top 10 players in Alabama for his age division. “We did some good things. I think we can do well this year.”
Sky is the limit
Thomas Brutkiewicz is 11 years old. He recently had a lot to tell his sixth-grade classmates at St. Paul’s.
He was among the best junior tennis players in the world who were invited to play at the 60th annual Junior Orange Bowl International Tennis Championship in December. The famous journalist Bud Collins once said, “The path to professional tennis runs through the Orange Bowl.”
Thomas earned the invitation by being ranked among the Top 100 players in the nation by the United States Tennis Association (USTA). He is also in the Top 20 in the Southern Region and is No. 2 in Alabama.
“It was my biggest event yet,” said Thomas, who often competes in the 14s and 16s at other events to find better competition. “You sign up and you wait to see if they select you. And in the main draw, I was selected.”
After losing in the first round, he dropped his consolation match in a tie-breaker to the top-rated player from Thailand. He was just two points away from a victory.
Although he did not win his matches, the experience was worth the trip to Miami.
“It was a good tournament for me,” said Thomas, who also hopes to play Division I tennis and possibly pursue a professional career. “I could see people who are better than me, and see how I can improve on my game.”
Among the lessons learned, he said, was to be more aggressive by taking control of the point earlier.
“I need to hit a good ball and put them on defense,” he said.
Dr. Brutkiewicz said the Orange Bowl event was comparable to a grand slam tournament in the professional ranks.
“There were players from all over the world,” he said. “It was the junior equivalent of Wimbledon. The field was 70 percent from outside the U.S. All the biggest players have competed in the Orange Bowl.
“Winning a match would have been great, but the ability to say you played in the best junior tournament in the world is truly something.”
The Brutkiewicz brothers have followed a different path than many who took part in the Orange Bowl.
“Most of the players there go to a tennis academy,” Mrs. Brutkiewicz said. “Our boys go to a regular school.”
Dr. Brutkiewicz added, “With those 12-year-old players in Miami, all they do is play tennis. We are a traditional family that combines coaching and hitting partners.”
Among the local tennis professionals who have played a key role is David Pantovic from Daphne’s Lott Park, who has worked with Thomas since he was 8. Other coaches are Raul Malaver of the Mobile Tennis Center and Brooks Green with the Country Club of Mobile.
“I try and coordinate their schedules,” the boys’ mother said. “In addition to lessons, they see a conditioning coach at the Country Club two times a week to work on foot movement and running for tennis.
“Fortunately, they look up their own tournaments. They know what they are ranked, and they are very self-directed with their goals.”
Next big event
While Philip is focusing on his St. Paul’s team, Thomas plans to head to Indian Wells, California, in March for the prestigious Easter Bowl tournament. It is the official USTA National Championship.
“It is second only to the Orange Bowl,” his father said. “It is the week after the professional men’s tournament there [the BNP Paribas Open].”
It is just part of a busy schedule for the brothers.
“It seems that every weekend we are going to some tournament,” their mother said. “Some we can drive back home, but others we have to fly.
“I know at Thanksgiving, Philip played in Louisville [Kentucky] while Thomas was in Montgomery. We might scale back in 2022. There is a fine line to playing in tournaments and staying in Mobile for coaching.”
Until then, Philip and Thomas will continue to help each other reach their full potential.
“Thomas would not have been at the Orange Bowl if not for Philip,” their mother said. “There is no rivalry between them. They are four-and-a-half years apart, but they have a very nurturing relationship.
“After each match, they will discuss what went wrong. It is really neat to see. They have developed their brotherly relationship.”
Sounds like a good plot for another movie, don’t you think?
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