A typical youth tennis player in Dixon cuts his or her teeth at the Emma Hubbs Tennis Courts, taking lessons under a warm summer sun from Hubbs, as she has done for more than half a century.
Dixon freshman Sam Bratt took a different path. He learned his tennis in the House of Bratt.
Tennis has always been the sport of choice for Tim and Grace Bratt, and their 12 children: Meghan, 34; Lesley, 32; Gordon, 31; Wyatt, 29; Clare, 26; Hugh, 24; twins Mary and Sadie, 22; Nora, 20; Joan, 18; Sam, 16; and Alane, 14.
When each of the children reached fifth grade, it was a requirement they take up tennis, and they had to play at least until they graduated from eighth grade. They could start sooner than fifth grade, or drop it after eighth grade, but for a minimum of those 4 years, they had to give the sport a fair chance.
Sam wanted a piece of the action earlier, so he started when he was just 4 years old.
"I'm really competitive, and I hated just watching them play," Sam said. "I was like, 'Fine, I want to do that.' There were eight of us playing, so dad couldn't do too much with me then. He'd give me a bucket of balls, and I'd have fun for a little bit."
Tim, a geologist for the Illinois Department of Transportation, learned the game growing up in Rockford, and he has passed on his tennis knowledge to each of his children. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, after he got off work, he'd load up the family van with buckets of tennis balls and rackets, the rest of his brood and head to Sauk Valley Community College.
There, the Bratts had eight courts to use, and it was far enough away from the highway that traffic noise wasn't a distraction.
Sam fondly remembers his early sessions, before some of his older brothers and sisters moved away, when all eight courts were in use in some fashion, and tennis balls were flying everywhere.
"It got pretty nuts," Sam said, "but it was fun."
The proving ground for the Bratt children was the Emma Hubbs Tennis Classic, held annually in late July. Sam noted he won 11-and-under, 13-and-under and 15-and-under age division titles over the years, but has so far been unable to snag the prize he covets most: the 18-and-under title.
This past summer, he lost a tiebreaker to Jack Nitz of Sterling. A few years earlier, Nitz had destroyed Bratt in a 15-and-under title match.
"I already had second place even if I lost, so I thought why not go for it all," Sam said. "I got him to a tiebreaker, and ended up losing."
For the past 2 summers, there has also been an inner-family tournament, as part of a family reunion. It is held in Austinburg, Ohio, where Sam's sister Clare works in a boarding school, and the family stays in school's dorms for a week.
Gordon is the king of Bratts when it comes to tennis, as he's won both family tournaments. For Sam, it's been a humbling experience.
"I haven't gotten out of the first round, but that's going to change," Sam said. "Clare beat me last year, but that's not too bad. She was a two-time state qualifier, so it's alright."
Being a high school freshman has brought Bratt new experiences, in and out of school. For instance, this is his first year in a public school, having been homeschooled until this past fall.
His mom, Grace, taught kindergarten through fifth grade, then Tim Bratt took over for the junior high years. It was anything but easy.
"Homeschooling was harder than this," Sam said, referring to his current course work. "Eighth grade, English-wise, was definitely harder than the English at high school. The papers were longer. It was a half-point off for every capitalization, misspelling – it was nuts."
Making new friends was not an issue. He had detasseled corn in the summer, and also played soccer, both in the youth leagues run by the Dixon Park District and for the Dukes last fall.
He already knew many of his current tennis teammates, through playing in the Hubbs Classic over the years.
"I can handle our team's level competition, at least," Sam said.
The Dukes have had mostly indoor practices thus far, due to the lousy run of spring weather, but head coach Steve Boll likes what he's seen thus far from Bratt.
"He really, really hustles on the court," Boll said, "and he's got some good strokes. I like how he moves on the court, he's quick, and I think he's going to win a lot of games for us."
When asked to critique his own game, Sam noted his serve needs work, along with his backhand. He's also in search of more power behind his shots.
"My placement is pretty good," Sam said, "but you've got to be able to hit so much harder at this level, especially if you're playing varsity."
Parents: Tim and Grace Bratt
FYI: Sam is 11th of 12 children, all of whom learned tennis from their father. ... Will likely earn spot in varsity tennis lineup. ... Also plays soccer for Dukes