Many of the best players his age skip high school tennis completely just to focus on USTA events, but not Pacific Palisades resident TJ Pura.
In fact, the Brentwood School sophomore has relished his role on the team so much that he considers representing the navy, scarlet and white a privilege. That is one reason why Pura is so well-liked by teammates and so appreciated by Eagles Coach Lee Herzog.
"TJ's not only a great tennis player with a bright future, but he's a super student and a terrific representative for our school," said Herzog, who has seen plenty of talented players matriculate through the program. "What makes him special is that his game is so mature--he can do it all. Yet, he doesn't have an inflated ego. He's just one of the guys and he always puts the needs of the team first."
Pura is one of the top five players in the nation in the boys 16s division, but he prefers playing "up" in the 18s against stronger, more experienced opponents. That strategy has allowed him to improve at an accelerated rate. He plays his share of ranked juniors in high school as well. He faced several, in fact, in the CIF Southern Section Individual Championships, where he fell to fellow sophomore Gage Brymer of Irvine University, 6-2, 6-3, in the singles final Saturday at Seal Beach Tennis Center.
"It's fun being part of a team and you still get to play some great players," said Pura, who lived in Bedford, New York until he was 12 but now lives at the top of Capri Drive near Riviera Country Club. "High school tennis is a nice break from the intensity of junior tournaments. I love the camaraderie. I've enjoyed every minute of it."
As a freshman last year, Pura helped the Eagles win the CIF Southern Section Division 2 title, then he partnered with senior teammate Chris Lord to win the Individual doubles crown. The Brentwood duo bested Corona del Mar's Ryan Peyton and Shane Korber, 6-4, 6-4, in the final.
"Last year was amazing because I experienced what it feels like winning both [team and individual championships]," Pura said. "I learned a lot. It was added motivation to want to come back and do it again this year."
This spring, Pura reached the quarterfinals in the CIF singles division at the Ojai Tournament in April, then led Brentwood to the Alpha League title and the No. 7 seed in the Division 1 playoffs. He swept his three sets in the Eagles' 10-8 loss to Palos Verdes in the quarterfinals, but afterwards he couldn't hide his disappointment.
"It's such an honor to play with these guys," Pura said. "I'm sad that the season is over."
Pura is focused on getting better, not just his junior ranking. So much so that private coach Hugo Armando flies to Los Angeles from Florida once or twice a month to work with him. Pura also takes lessons from Barry Horowitz, who worked Ryan Thacher (now at Stanford) at MountainGate Junior Academy.
"I've been working on my serve, to win easier points," Pura said. "I like coming in [to net], so if I get a short ball, I'll attack it. If I had to pick a strength right now I'd say it's my mental toughness. I like figuring out how to beat guys."
The pro Pura most admires is the one he's grown up watching--Switzerland's 16-time Grand Slam winner Roger Federer because "he's an all-court player with all the shots. That's what I want to be."
Pura was exposed to tennis at the age of six when a relative handed him a racquet at a camp in Michigan. He has three older siblings--brothers Eugene and Adam (a senior cornerback on the Occidental College football team) and sister Jennifer.
Pura lived in Hollywood for two years before relocating to the Palisades two summers ago. When it came time to decide where to go to high school, he was considering both Brentwood and Harvard-Westlake in North Hollywood.
"I applied to both, but Harvard-Westlake put me on the wait list and that was that," Pura said. "I'm glad I ended up here. It's great academically. My favorite classes are Algebra 2 and Latin 3. Also, Coach [Herzog] is so understanding if there are schedule conflicts [with junior events]."
In January, Pura captured his first national title since 2007 at the USTA Boys’ 16s Winter National Championships in Scottsdale, Arizona, where he upset No. 1-seeded Sean Karl of Tennessee in the final, calling it his "biggest win so far."
Pura was also one of four junior players featured in a 2008 tennis documentary called "50,000 Balls," produced by his late father Tom.
"That was fun to do," Pura said of the film. "It was basically a look at the day in the life of a tennis player--all the practicing, the traveling, the tournaments and the sacrifices that are involved. I was thrilled to be a part of it."
Pura said he will "probably" play college tennis and that should he choose an Ivy League school it would be Harvard, where his dad pitched on the baseball team. He still has two more years of high school left, however, and wants to make the most of them.
"My goal right now is to keep adding elements to my game, keep improving and stay in the top five in the rankings," Pura said. "Next spring, we'll go after the CIF title again and hopefully we'll win it."