In a family of standouts, Sabers' Baillon is rising above the rest

In a family of standouts, Sabers' Baillon is rising above the rest

CHAMPAIGN — Wade Baillon knows whom the winner would be.

The question: If the rising junior at St. Thomas More took to the tennis court with his father, Ernie, and older sister, Madie, which Baillon would collect the most victories?

The credentials: Wade qualified last month for the IHSA Class 1A boys' state tournament, while both Ernie and Madie played the sport at the University of Illinois.

And now, the answer.

"My sister would win the most," Wade said without hesitation. "I think I'd be able to beat my dad, but my sister would win in the end."

What does the 2017 Illini graduate think about that?

"I can still beat him up a little bit," Madie admitted. "I've just got a little more experience. But pretty soon he's going to be competing with me."

Wade had little trouble doing just that in 2018 against the best the East Central Illinois prep scene had to offer.

The News-Gazette All-Area boys' tennis Player of the Year garnered a 1A sectional singles title while posting a 14-2 record at the Sabers' No. 1 position and pairing with senior J.P. Ridge for a 6-1 mark at No. 1 doubles.

So, yes, Wade could soon surpass Madie for family tennis supremacy.

But he wasn't given the chance to put forth a similar effort among his peers during the May state showcase.

***

In high school, academics always will trump athletics. So it was natural that Wade had to get some end-of-year schoolwork done before the state tournament last month.

One problem: "Some," in this case, meant completing eight exams in two days.

"It's definitely a tough situation where they have to do all their finals before they leave for state," first-year STM coach Jason Scicchitano said. "It just adds so much stress. I'm not sure how the other kids do it."

Getting less sleep and focusing 100 percent on coursework meant Wade's health was ripe to take a tumble.

Scicchitano said a bug going around STM did nothing to help matters.

And so, instead of squaring off against Chatham Glenwood senior Kevin Zhang in an opening-round singles bout, Baillon was confined to his bed.

"It broke our hearts," Ernie said. "I think his body was weak and tired and vulnerable. He wanted to go anyway, but you've got a 102-degree fever and it's 90 degrees and you're playing three or four matches a day. It wasn't right for him to go."

Wade took this roadblock in stride, describing the situation as "a little disappointing." He noted that if this was his senior campaign, he'd be far more upset about how things played out.

Instead, he's already looking forward.

"I realized I wasn't able to compete, really. I could've easily hurt myself pretty badly," Wade said. "But I have two more years to hopefully qualify again, so we'll see how it goes."

***

Wade picking up a tennis racket may seem like the most obvious sports-related decision ever made, considering his family's history in the venture.

But he's tried his hand at golf and soccer. He's also realized tennis is his true calling.

"I felt a little bit compelled (to play) just because (my dad and sister) were both really successful in it," Wade said. "I really just grew up with the sport, and I just learned to love it."

Ernie recalls Wade tagging along for Madie's STM tennis matches and actually soaking in what he was seeing, rather than running off to a nearby playground or becoming immersed in his phone.

"Usually those things don't pay off when you're 11 or 12," Ernie said. "But now that he's older and stronger and lifting weights, he's able to swing hard and hit the ball hard and all the underlying things. The basics are there."

Even now, Wade has no trouble recalling just what he gained by being in the stands as Madie made her way to a trio of girls' state tournament berths over the course of four years.

"I just kind of learned how confident she was," Wade said. "She played (number) one in high school, went to (Illinois State) for her first year ... and I gained a lot of respect for her walking on to the U of I and playing top six."

Madie said one specific ideal she, along with Ernie, tried to instill in Wade was the knowledge that putting in reps is a requirement to become an effective tennis player.

"It's a lot more work than some people realize, especially those who don't know the sport really well," Madie said. "Starting at a young age, he was able to see how much time I put into it. He's been able to realize that's what you've got to do."

***

Scicchitano was new to the area when he took over the Sabers earlier this year. So he wasn't immediately aware which of his new charges was at the head of the pack.

The first thing the Fairfax, Va., native noticed was that Wade is "a smaller guy." When he actually lined up across the court from Wade, though, that didn't matter.

"He has so much power in his shot," Scicchitano said. "It's hard to see where it comes from. He's clearly been playing his whole life."

Ernie also serves as an STM assistant coach, but Scicchitano didn't slot Wade in the No. 1 singles position for that reason. It became clear to Scicchitano this slight-but-strong youngster was far and away his top athlete.

"Everyone loves him on the team," Scicchitano said. "When I first met them, I said, 'My tennis team in high school, one of my teammates went pro. Maybe there's someone on this team that's going pro,' and they all yelled his name."

Wade isn't rushing to judgment on that, and Ernie said he and wife Elizabeth don't want to force Wade in any direction with his future.

Even though he qualified for state as a sophomore — just like his sister — Wade is keeping things simple on the court.

"It really doesn't change my goals too much," he said. "My goal is to just try my hardest to have fun with it."

***

A combination of factors has played into Wade's success thus far in his tennis career.

Family influence.

Good work ethic.

Natural ability.

But the one attribute those closest to him find easiest to point out is just how intelligent Wade is between the white lines.

"He's a thinker out there, and I think that's a strength," Ernie said. "He realizes the weaknesses of his opponents. He can rip the ball and hit it hard, but he's willing to play to the weaknesses of other players."

"I watched him play at sectionals, and obviously I was extremely impressed with him," Madie added. "He kept his composure. It's not always about who can hit the ball harder, but about going out and outsmarting your opponent."

Scicchitano watched Wade achieve that against numerous local talents, including guys to whom he didn't stack up as a freshman. Area players like Danville senior Ryan Vadeboncoeur, Urbana freshman Bill Layton and Uni High freshman Zachary Donnini — all 2018 News-Gazette All-Area first-team selections — fell at Wade's hands this year.

"He's on a really fast growth trajectory," Scicchitano said. "And he's only a sophomore, so I can't wait to see how he plays the next couple of years. He's going to be unbeatable."

Once again, though, that's not something Wade is pondering.

He just wants to play some tennis.

"I never really thought about that," Wade said. "I just kind of go into my matches and play my hardest. If I win, that's a bonus for me. If you don't, that's OK. Sun's going to come up tomorrow."

Honor Roll: News-Gazette boys' tennis Player of the Year

YEAR NAME SCHOOL

2018 Wade Baillon St. Thomas More

2017 Jared Thomas Centennial

2016 Nikhil Thope Champaign Central

2015 Sunny Singh Centennial

2014 Austin Aten, Champaign Central

2013 Alex Mestre, Uni High

Edo Roth

2012 Sunny Singh Centennial

2011 Austin Aten Champaign Central

2010 Maurico Gonzalez Centennial

2009 David Ruedi Centennial

2008 David Ruedi Centennial

2007 Rodrigo Miller Champaign Central

2006 Chad Simpson Danville

2005 Chad Simpson Danville

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