Originally published in The Mercury News – January 5, 2018
The passport of Niluka Madurawe isn’t lacking for stamps.
Next week, the 17-year-old will add Australia to a collection of countries that include Trinidad & Tobago, Guatemala (twice), The Bahamas, Jamaica, Canada, Uruguay, Peru and Mexico.
That’s just in the past 12 months.
So how exactly does a senior in high school travel the world and still manage to get her homework done in time? For this Stanford-bound women’s tennis player, currently ranked No. 107 in the ITF junior circuit while preparing to play in the Australian Open Junior Championships later this month in Melbourne, the answer is iCademy.
“You can’t do it without it,” said Madurawe, who enrolled in the online private international school after a choice to focus on tennis while attending seventh grade at Cupertino Middle School. “There’s a tournament every week in another country and you can’t be trying to email your teachers at a regular school. It’s a mess when you do that, versus with this schooling, you can take it with you and you can work while you’re gone.
“So when you come back, you’re not two weeks behind because you weren’t given the schoolwork.”
Born and raised in Sunnyvale, she began to play tennis at the age of 6.
But it’s been quite a while since her mother, Manisha, witnessed Niluka play a live match.
“She gets so nervous, she doesn’t watch,” Niluka said.
“I go with her, I wait until they call her watch and I say, ‘Good luck,’ and then I go read a book or I go for a walk,” her mother said. “I cannot watch her.”
Niluka added: “She hasn’t watched me play a match since I was maybe 10.”
One thing her mother definitely keeps an eye on is schoolwork.
“My mom has her account, so she can just check what’s going on,” Madurawe said. “I don’t need to report to her, which is kind of nice, because when I’m out of the country I can’t be calling my mom every couple of hours.”
Though it requires discipline and flexibility, it’s easier to log onto the internet after a strenuous practice with her coach Nick Fustar at Eagle Fustar Tennis Academy in Santa Clara or a high-stress match somewhere across the globe.
“I mean, it’s tough, especially when you’re traveling,” Madurawe said. “You have an hour-and-a-half before dinner and you’re really tired. Nobody wants to open up their schoolbooks, so it’s nice that I ask my mom to check and she can go like, ‘OK, just do this assignment or finish this stuff, and that’s it.”
Her curriculum for the first semester of senior year included AP Psych, AP Calculus, Honors British and World Literature, Physics and Nutrition.
“You have a teacher for each subject and they give online lessons which you can attend, or most of the time because of practice I watch the recording,” said Madurawe, who will exchange discourse with teachers via email or Skype. “They’re always easy to reach out to and say like, ‘Oh, I don’t really understand this lesson and what is it about?’ And they’ll explain it.
“I have a lot of friends that go to regular school that aren’t athletes and I think it’s very similar. Our curriculum is always the same.”
Self-professed at 5 feet, 4 inches tall “on a good day” as one of the USTA top-ranked juniors, Madurawe is part of the adiPlayer preferred player program, which helps aquire adidas products at discounted prices.
That helps offset part of the financial commitment required to play at tournaments around the world.
“My husband always says, this is a joke, ‘No, she should be a DaddyPlayer’— because of all the funding that we’ve had to for the last, what, seven, eight years,” her mother said. “So all these trips, everything, obviously we’ve had to pocket it out. But it’s fine.”
Both of her parents will travel to Australia.
The itinerary begins with a flight on Monday and a trek to Traralgon, about a two-hour drive southeast of Melbourne. That’s the location of a warm-up tournament the week before the Grand Slam event.
“At the higher levels, the first round is insanely tough,” said Madurawe, a right-hander with a two-handed backhand.
It’s her first competition in nearly a month, after focusing on fitness during what she deemed the “preseason” in the middle of December.
An aggressive baseline player, Madurawe understands that staying in shape is a priority on the ITF junior circuit — and beyond.
“Everyone is really physically fit at this stage,” she said. “So it’s just mainly who can figure out their opponent quicker.”
That doesn’t mean Madurawe can’t indulge while on the road.
“It’s always eating out because you don’t really get to cook when you’re abroad,” Madurawe said. “I’m a huge foodie, so I always look up restaurants and I find things that I know I’ll really like. Even if we to take an Uber or something, I’m OK with it. So we always actually get really good food.”
Two weeks in Australia will allow her to experience the local cuisine, but she’s not merely a tourist.
“I think it will be just such a vivid atmosphere,” said Madurawe, who earned a spot in the qualifying draw at the Australian Open Junior Championships.
After returning to the Bay Area, the plan is to enter a couple of ITF $25K events in the pro circuit during February. She’s still unsure about the possibility of playing the junior tournaments at the French Open, Wimbledon or U.S. Open.
Regardless, Madurawe will certainly be battle-tested by the time she steps foot as a freshman on The Farm in the fall.
“There’s actually a lot I want to improve before I get to college,” she said. “I think the biggest one right now is I’m just working on transitioning up to net more. I’ve become better at it, but I still make mistakes. So I’m really looking forward to tightening that up and just becoming more solid at it. Also, I want to advantage more of my serve. And just solidify my play. I still think I make too many loose errors here and there, and I just want to become better overall.”
It’s a priority to keep improving because the projected singles ladder at Stanford won’t return with any glaring vacancies.
“It’ll be tough to squeeze into the lineup,” Madurawe said. “There’s no one that’s graduating this year when I come in.”
That didn’t deter her or Sacred Heart Prep senior Sara Choy from choosing Stanford.
Madurawe was actually a verbal commit to Dartmouth before the Cardinal, an 18-time NCAA women’s tennis champion, entered the picture in August.
“It was pretty straightforward from there,” Madurawe said.
In a matter of months, the classroom will no longer be virtual and a passport won’t be required to play in the Pac-12.
“Just the opportunity to go to school so close to home in an area that I really love and with teammates that I really like, I think everything just fit in super well with me for Stanford,” said Madurawe, who plans to attend law school. “Parents are very happy.”
“It’s way closer,” her mother said.
No word if that means she’ll watch her daughter from the stands, or enjoy a walk on campus.