It Runs in the Family
Picture this. Sometime in the 2010s, on a private court in Thailand, under the unbearable weight of tropical heat and heavy, soul-sapping humidity, a kid is trading forehands with his coach. He’s darting back and forth, hitting one precise shot after another—his movements by now already a work of muscle memory and instinct rather than conscious decisions. The kid seems tireless. Coated with a thick layer of glossy sweat, and a shirt permanently stuck to his back, he looks like he’d just been swimming. He hits a booming forehand, the sound echoing into the night, he recovers, split steps, and hits another. Then one more. After a seemingly endless series of shots, each one a mirror image of the other, he puts one into the net. He groans quietly, checks the strings of his racquet, and picks up the mischievous ball with the weary professionalism of been-there-done-that-a-thousand-times. And then a few thousand times over. Although only 10-years-old, the likelihood is that he has already spent more time on court than you ever will.
The child’s name could be Ulises, or it could be Dali or Darwin. With a quick change of the pronoun, it could also be Krystal—all siblings of the Blanch family grew up to be tennis players. Their respective stories brim with parallels and recurrent motifs, and although the four kids have since diverged into their own paths, the blue court of their childhood will always remain a constant memory.
The first thing to understand when taking stock of the Blanch family is that there is no Plan B. In a calculated and methodical way, Ulises, Dali, Krystal, and Darwin were shown a road to professional tennis at an early age, and they followed it with enthusiasm. “From a very early age, they were very clear that they wanted to be professionals [tennis players], and they didn’t really want to talk much about going to college,” says Ernesto Blanch, the father. At the time, Ernesto was working for Coca-Cola. Posted to Thailand, he cleared the palm trees in his backyard and built a tennis court for his eldest son, Ulises, to play on. In many ways, Ulises became the manifestation of the blueprint followed later by his siblings, Dali, Krystal, and Darwin. In the sunbaked space behind the house, Ulises would learn the ins and outs of the game by logging in endless hours of court time.
“Thailand is really hot, but I loved it,” Ulises says. “I lived there for nine years while growing up, from four to 13. That’s where I started going to school, that’s when I started making friends, where I started playing tennis. When I left, and started going through different parts of the world, all that made me realise how much I actually enjoyed being there. It was great.” As it would be with the other kids, from the start, everything was geared towards giving Ulises the best chance at accomplishing his dreams. “It’s very important to know that, as a father, I have to rely on the people that know,” says Ernesto. “You are not going to tell the doctor how to do your surgery, you have to rely on somebody that has done the surgery many times. You have to be in the hands of people that have developed kids at very early ages to reach professional levels—the ones who have seen this for decades, and know what they do right and what they do wrong,” he explains. “So, we got that one right from very early on. Because even if you think you may know, you don’t.”
Staying true to his own advice, Ernesto employed a full-time coach from Argentina to look after the development of Ulises and his siblings. With professional help at home, the starlets would also regularly fly out to Florida, the home of legendary coach Rick Macci. “Rick put the technique,” says Ernesto. “The biomechanics, which are really important to build before the age of 12. So, first the biomechanics, and then they learn how to actually play the game.” Rick Macci has a proven record of creating tennis superstars. The American coach has had a hand in shaping such luminaries of the game as Serena and Venus Williams, Jennifer Capriati, Andy Roddick, Maria Sharapova, and Sofia Kenin. The Rick Macci Tennis Academy in Boca Raton, Florida, has long been a proving ground for hopeful tennis talents. “When they’re in Florida, they come by and I take the temperature and check them out,” Macci says of his relationship with the Blanch family.
“All the kids are very coachable—they don’t get too high, and they don’t get too low. They’re very even keel. The father, Ernesto, has done an amazing job with all the kids,” he continues. “It’s not easy when they’re different ages. He’s done a great job of motivating them and giving them an opportunity to be the best they can be.” As Ulises grew older, and started showing signs of the formidable tennis player he would later become, the family decided to send him to Argentina, the Mecca of clay-court tennis. It was a path all kids would eventually follow. In the meantime, as Ulises was learning the arcana of the red clay under the vigilant eye of veteran coaches with permanently orange-tinted socks, his two brothers and sister continued their development in Thailand. By then, their coach was spending up to ten hours a day training the remaining kids while they rotated between school, on-court training, and fitness conditioning.
There exists a telling photograph that encapsulates the experience. Darwin, wearing blue shorts, no shirt, and a pair of red tennis shoes, smiles into the camera at a small wooden desk, taking a break from his schoolwork. Behind him, Krystal warms up while waiting for Dali to finish his turn with the coach. “I spoke Spanish already because of my dad,” Ulises says of his experience in Argentina. “In terms of language it was fine. Culture-wise, it wasn’t too different, because my dad’s from Spain. I think the idea that I was moving there for tennis, and that it was something that I wanted to do kind of took away how tough it was at the beginning.”
Although it is probably the most divisive of surfaces, red clay is also the most educational one—the ability to move on the ‘dirt’ and grind out long and brutal points is invaluable in the development of any tennis player. “I think the fact that the father exposed them to red clay and developing patience, getting out of Thailand, which is not really a hotbed [of clay court tennis], and coming to Florida on a regular basis, has really helped their development,” Rick Macci says. The four siblings quickly moved up in the tennis hierarchy, and they soon became regulars at the USTA National Campus in Orlando, the home of USTA’s performance programme. “After the age 14,15, they have all spent quite a bit of time there which was very good. The USTA really went out of their way to help because the kids were obviously some of the best in the country,” says Ernesto.
By then, the concoction of level-headed decisions, experienced counsel, and the kids’ own combustible talent fermented into tangible results. “Ulises was the first one,” Macci says. “The father brought him to me when he was six-years-old. And he’s worked his butt off to get where he’s gotten to.”
Ulises, 24-years-old, and with a career-high ranking of 236, sees himself as a very attacking player. “My best shots are my serve and my forehand,” he describes his game. “I try to use them as much as I can to make damage. All the time, I’m trying to instil my game in the match so that I can feel as comfortable as possible, and my opponent obviously be a little more vulnerable to what I’m doing.” In his junior days, Ulises competed against some of the biggest names in today’s tennis, such as Stefanos Tsitsipas and Denis Shapovalov, eventually becoming world’s second-highest ranked junior in the ITF rankings in June 2016.
“He’s a firecracker,” says Sofia Sewing, Ulises’s long-time girlfriend and an EDGE International player, herself world number 9 in the ITF Junior rankings. “He has a very strong personality and is very determined. When it comes to tennis, he is a very serious person.” With one Futures and two Challenger titles to his name, Ulises entered the big time when he received a wild card into the main draw of the 2020 US Open. Although he ended up losing to Cristian Garín in the first round in gruelling five sets, the experience served as a confidence boost, and further enhanced his credentials.
Ulises’s younger brother is Dali. With a powerful forehand (a characteristic shared by all four of the kids, and a mark of the work Rick Macci has done), Macci describes him as “a great athlete, and a great competitor mentally.” At 19, Dali ranks 717 in the world, having previously reached number 4 in the ITF Junior rankings, and plays under the banner of EDGE International, a sports agency in which Rick Macci is involved. When Dali turned 16, he won his first Junior Grand Slam match at the 2019 French Open. “My dad and my coach were there, and I had passed the qualifiers, and then won my first match there,” he remembers. “I was really happy because it was my first time, and it had been one of my goals to play in the Grand Slam, and it happened earlier than I had expected.”
Krystal, the only girl in the family, is a fierce competitor with a singular focus on tennis. At 17-years-old, with a career-high ITF Junior ranking of 56, she boasts “great hand-eye coordination and a lot of power,” Macci assesses. “I’m definitely an aggressive player. I always try to make my opponent move before they move me,” Krystal describes her game. “I play a really risky game, hitting hard, trying to make the points short. It’s risky, but it’s how I like to play.”
Last but not least is Darwin. “He is going to be a wonderful tennis player,” Macci says with a smile. “Obviously, in men’s tennis, physicality is key, so we will have to see how that goes, but he has incredible potential. He has a lot of ability because he understands the game naturally.” In February 2022, at 14-years-old, playing a $15,000 ITF tournament in Villena, Spain, Darwin Blanch became the second youngest player ever to earn an ATP point. Left-handed by design (one of the best decisions the family has made, Macci thinks) Darwin is a supremely talented competitor. “What I like is he understands the geometry of the court like it’s his living room,” says Macci. “My goal is to be number one in the ATP,” Darwin himself says. “That and to win a Grand Slam. But for now my goal for the end of the year is trying to finish [inside] top-100 in the ITF. It’s gonna be tough, but I think I can achieve that.”
Despite the four kids’ achievements in the world of tennis, this is a story of family. By now Ulises, Dali, Krystal, and Darwin are all fully-formed players in their own rights. Well travelled and trilingual, the whirlwind of life scattered them over the world in search of their own paths. But even the shared experiences of having grown up in Thailand, moving to Argentina, and training at the Rick Macci Tennis Academy in Florida imprinted on the siblings in unique ways. “They were all destined to play pro tennis,” says Macci. “But I think they’re such a great tennis family because they all support each other, they all help each other.”
From the start, the Blanch family understood the impossibility of the task—the odds of successfully creating a top-tennis player verge on astronomical. For every Carlos Alcaraz there are thousands whose dedication, work ethic, technical ability, or physical prowess are eventually found lacking. Ernesto Blanch’s relentless drive to provide his children with the requisite tools to succeed went beyond his desire to see them do so. “You have to pay your dues,” he says. “You have a responsibility to make sure that you send them on the right path. Otherwise, it’s not fair. If you have a dream about this or that, and then the kid gets hooked up on that dream, but you are actually sending them in the wrong direction, that’s so crazy unfair to the kids.”
In the end, there was no hard-coded plan to create a dynasty of professionals, no unrealised ambitions, and no deep-seated wishes to live one’s dreams through a proxy. What Ernesto set out to do was lay out a path before his children, and then guide them as best as he could. “We never started with the first kid with any plan to make him a professional,” he says. “We started to develop something—values, a way of living, and then it led into this. But to me, it’s a great way to focus your life, and to focus your energy, and to develop many things, and stay away from any other things. I think there is value [in tennis] way beyond the actual doctrine of results. I think that’s important.”
Story published in Courts no. 3, Summer 2022.