Moving Up Quickly

Devin Britton jumped off the spinning world tour he's been on the last few months for a stop in Oxford this week.

The 18-year-old professional tennis player returned to the scene of his only semester of college. While at Ole Miss he went from a fairly well-known junior player to the top of college tennis, becoming the youngest NCAA Men's Singles champion in history, winning the crown less than two and a half months after turning 18 on March 17.

It was that run in late May that attracted much attention and eventually vaulted him into the professional ranks. When Britton won that event, lots of people noticed.

Then came a successful June overseas in which the Jackson native played in the French Open Junior Tournament, losing his opening singles match but advancing in doubles to the quarterfinals with fellow American Jordan Cox.

Britton followed that up with a victory run in the AEGON International Junior Championships, claiming both the singles and doubles titles at Roehampton in England, closing out a successful prelude to the Wimbledon Junior Tournament.

Now the attention he was receiving was even more dramatic. On the last day of June, Britton defeated New Zealand's Sebastian Lavie 6-4, 7-5 to reach the round of 16 at the Wimbledon Juniors. The next day he turned pro.

"It's been pretty crazy since I left here," he said Tuesday at the Palmer-Salloum Tennis Center on the Ole Miss campus. "It's been busy and a lot of traveling. It's been a lot of fun though."

Indeed it must have been. The most notoriety Britton received came on Aug. 31 when he played the No. 1 player in the world and arguably the best player of all time, Roger Federer, in the first round of the U.S. Open.

Although he lost 6-1, 6-3, 7-5, the scores show he got better as the match went on. Or at least he settled down and played better.

"I was so nervous in the beginning," he said. "Just walking out there, I thought I was going to trip over my own feet. As it went on, I relaxed a little bit, and it got closer. I didn't think by any means I'd beat him at any point. But I was having fun out there and had some good moments."

Britton then played mixed doubles at the U.S. Open with NCAA Women's Singles champion Mallory Cecil of Duke. They lost in the first round. Cecil is actually Britton's former girlfriend.

Britton said winning the NCAAs at Texas A&M, which was the title that garnered him a spot in the U.S. Open, was quite a lift for his career.

"After the NCAAs I got a lot more attention from agents and stuff like that," he said. "When you get the opportunity to turn pro, you don't want to turn that down."

Britton admitted a part of him longs to still be a Rebel tennis player, helping the program here try to win the NCAA team championship in 2010.

"Of course, I wish I could come back here with the guys and all, because I like all the guys here on the team, and the coaches," he said. "They're great coaches. It's tough to leave, but it's something I've been working for, trying to become a professional."

Britton said before his run in the NCAA Singles Championships, he was returning to Ole Miss for another year.

"One week can change a lot, attention-wise from sponsors and all," he said. "So that's what happened."

Britton, a big fan of the New Orleans Saints, spent last week in his hometown of Jackson and attended the Saints-Lions game in New Orleans Sunday.

From here Britton, ranked around 1,360th in the world, will head to Boca Raton, Fla., and then to Spain for six weeks to train on red clay courts and play a few tournaments.

"I've got to improve everything really," he said. "I've got to get stronger. I've got to get in better shape. All the top guys are so fit. I'm working hard on that. And I've got to work on my serve a lot. Mostly work on movement and balance and things like that."

Britton said the summer was good to help give him insight on how to better his game.

"It's been a good experience," he said. "I was playing top level tournaments, and I wasn't expecting to win them. It was good to see how these guys train, and how they do all their stuff. That's the level I need to be. I'm not at that level yet, but I'm working hard to get to that level."

Clearly his progress from January to now has been tremendous.

"From the time I got here through May, I improved a bunch," he said. "These guys here helped me a ton, with Coach (Billy Chadwick) and Toby (assistant Coach Toby Hansson). That was huge for me."

Chadwick and Hansson said they hated to lose their star player to the pros. But they also said to take a look at what he did for the program in his short time at Ole Miss.

"Devin used the college experience to get better in every area of his game, especially the mental aspect," Chadwick said. "What he gave to Ole Miss, another SEC (team) title, an NCAA Singles championship, another top 5 (national team) finish, it will all be remembered for a long, long time. He has a title that nobody else has. He is the youngest person to ever win that championship."

"He finished off his college carry in the best way possible, and that was a spring board for him to take it to that next level," Hansson said. "He's on that path right now. There will be some twists and turns along the way. If he keeps his head up and keeps working as he is right now, I know his potential is really, really high. He has the potential to become a top player."

Britton hopes for more days like the one he spent on Arthur Ashe Court playing Federer. They are likely to happen, and he obviously wants them to be more successful.

"Playing in the U.S. Open was by far the most exciting so far," he said. "Getting to play before like 16,000 people, I mean it was crazy. And to play against Roger Federer was awesome. I was surprised and didn't believe it at first (when he found out he was playing Federer). But it was a great experience."

He is well aware this year has been quite the magical one that might be hard to match for at least a while.

"Everything has kind of lined up the right way," he said. "This year's been unreal. I'll be lucky to have as good a year next year as I did this year. So I'm enjoying it while I can. I know it's probably going to become more of a grind as it goes on. Hopefully I'll get back up there."

Chadwick said United States tennis is truly looking at Britton as one of the rising stars who can do great things in the world of professional tennis.

"At the moment there are probably two kids," he said who are carrying the banner as potential stars for the U.S. "Ryan Harrison is one, and Devin is the other. They have really moved themselves into the front of the pack, and the pack is about 10 players."

Ironically, Harrison's dad, Pat Harrison, was on the first Chadwick-coached team at Ole Miss.

Chadwick said now that Britton is gone from Ole Miss and in the pro ranks, the better he does, the better for Ole Miss and the tennis program here.

"At the U.S. Open, everybody was extremely impressed," he said. "What a great opportunity playing the No. 1 player with the whole world watching. Devin was able to do the things he needed to do in that match, and that was make sure everybody who watched it said ‘I like this young kid.' He competed hard, he enjoyed it, and he showed moments of brilliance, and it was easy to see his potential. It was important for him not to waste a single second on any kind of negative energy. He enjoyed it and played a very good match that day."

Chadwick said it's all been an important eight months for everyone involved.

"Devin didn't have to go to college, and he didn't have to come to Ole Miss," he said. "The fact that he played in college for the University of Mississippi and won championships, he lifted everything. He made us all look real, real good."

And that's likely to continue for a long, long time.

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