Many athletes end up whittling down their interests to one sport by the time they get to high school, believing that specializing will put them on a faster track to success and perhaps even a college scholarship.
Max Sheldon did the opposite.
He added a sport in high school.
And by adding golf, Sheldon saved his promising tennis career.
“I would have ended up quitting tennis,” Sheldon said. “I was so close to quitting. So close.”
Sheldon, a senior at Hersey, will be playing tennis next year at Michigan State. On scholarship.
But during his freshman year of high school, despite winning the Mid-Suburban League championship and being named the MSL player of the year, Sheldon hit a wall with tennis. He worried that the sport he grew up on, the sport that is a family tradition, would end up being a part of his long forgotten past.
“I had this really long losing streak going and it wouldn’t get out of my head. I just could not win a match,” Sheldon said. “I think I went three months without winning a single match. I would go to these big national tournaments in Florida and I would lose right away and I’d have to fly home. I wasn’t enjoying tennis. I was doing it too much and I got burned out. I thought I was done with it.”
Turns out Sheldon just needed a change of scenery.
“A bunch of my friends were doing golf and they said I should try it. I tried out two weeks late, but I made the team and I got lucky I guess. I did pretty well. My teammates have this running joke now that I can go six months without playing golf and still be the same.
“It’s been good for me, it gave me the break I needed from tennis.”
With a fresh perspective and a rejuvenated spirit, Sheldon came back to tennis as a sophomore with a pep in his step.
He rolled up a 32-1 record and pushed all the way to the 2019 Class 2A state championship match.
He wound up placing second in the state.
“I just kept working. I got into better shape before my sophomore year and I kept working,” Sheldon said. “That’s the best advice I got from my mom. She told me to just put in the practice and keep working and that my dreams would come true and that’s exactly what happened.”
Sheldon’s mother has always had a helpful perspective on tennis.
Chris Gilles Sheldon was a star tennis player, along with her sister Wendy, at the University of Wisconsin in the 1980s.
She is now a tennis instructor at Midtown Athletic Club in Bannockburn and is Max’s lead coach.
“My dad (Walter) played tennis in college, too,” Sheldon said. “He was a walk-on at Western Illinois. He ended up meeting my mom after college. She was teaching tennis at the Lincolnshire Tennis Club and he played there.
“Tennis runs in the family. I’ve got it easy if I ever need help.”
Once Sheldon got back on track with tennis, he made it look easy.
He played his best tennis ever in the USTA events he entered in the offseason during his sophomore year, finishing in the top 12 at the 16-and-under Clay Court Nationals and ending up ranked in the top 25 on the national recruiting lists.
That’s when Michigan State took notice.
“I had a big breakthrough my sophomore year,” Sheldon said. “I had some great wins at state and then I had one of the best summers anyone could have asked for with some really big wins at those national tournaments. It was a big underdog run.”
Meanwhile, golf continued to be a much-needed respite for Sheldon.
As a junior last fall, Sheldon helped the Hersey golf team win a regional, and he did so again earlier this month as a senior. The Huskies won the Buffalo Grove regional to qualify for the Rockford Auburn sectional.
Hersey took third in the sectional last weekend with Sheldon finishing tied for 27th with an 84.
Since there is no state golf finals this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the season is now over.
“It’s very sad that golf is over. It was a lot of fun for me,” Sheldon said. “All of the seniors are really having a tough time with it. We’ve been talking a lot about our memories, talking about how time has flown by so fast.”
Sheldon feels the same way about tennis.
His tennis career seems extremely fleeting, especially considering that he missed his junior season due to the IHSA canceling all spring sports in 2020 because of the pandemic.
Sheldon is praying that he gets a senior season in the spring. He’s got his eyes on a state title.
“I want a season, and I want a state finals,” Sheldon said. “After my sophomore year (finishing second in state), I’d like to get at least one more shot at it. I feel like I have unfinished business.”