Nestor Bernabe remembers vividly the first time he met Moses Brown School senior Candice Ballarin. At the time, she was just nine years old and stood on the tennis court not quite sure which hand she should hold the racquet in.
“When she first started she was awful,” said Bernabe, who runs Providence Tennis Academy.
James Bogdanovic remembers, too, seeing Ballarin hit a tennis ball for the first time.
“I was hitting competitively on one court and she was next to me on the other court. She was being hand-fed orange balls,” said Bogdanovic, referring to the low compression balls used to teach beginners.
A year later Ballarin won her first USTA tournament.
“I’ll never forget it. I think I was 10,” said Ballarin. “It wasn’t a big tournament. It was a small round robin. I played two girls I had been training with. I beat them both. I’ll always remember that.”
Ballarin didn’t come with athleticism or skills. She came to Bernabe with a big smile and an instant desire to learn and get better. She came with passion.
“When I got Candice, I said, ‘this girl is awesome. She wants to get better. She loves tennis,’” said Bernabe. “It was never ‘oh this girl might end up playing college tennis if everything works out.’ That was more her doing. That was Candice wanting to show up everyday and train for three hours and run everything as hard as she can. She brought everything she could out of her body by showing up and being present, listening and working hard and doing whatever she needed to do to get better.”
“I loved the competitive environment. I kept playing every single day because I wanted to get better,” said Ballarin.
Bogdanovic is one of the state’s top players. A senior at Barrington, he is the 2019 state finalist, Player of the Year nominee and a member of the All-Decade team (second team). He used one word to describe Ballarin, his best friend and hitting partner since the two were 12.
“Driven. Candice is so driven. Not just in tennis, in everything she does,” said Bogdanovic. “Candice wants to be the best in every single thing she does, on the court, in the classroom and socially.”
Ballarin’s drive, hard work and ability to overcome countless injuries has paid off. The left-hander, who has repeatedly ranked among the top five in New England, recently finished her high school career as the RI singles champion after crushing No. 1 seed and defending state champ Maddie Omicioli, 6-0, 6-2. The title was the second for No. 2 seed Ballarin in three years. Ballarin won the title as a sophomore – just one year after missing her entire freshman year due to an ankle injury.
But this straight set victory over East Greenwich’s Omicioli was special. Ballarin overcame an arm injury late in the season and capped her final high school season avenging a disappointing loss to Omicioli in the 2019 finals (4-6, 6-2, 6-3). The loss ended Ballarin’s perfect season. From that day forward, Ballarin worked hard on and off the court to improve both her physical game and mental toughness.
“I lost my confidence in myself and my ability when I lost that match. I knew I had to focus on getting better and improve my game and look forward – not back,” said Ballarin.
“Mentally she learned a lot from that loss,” said Bernabe .”She learned it doesn’t matter if you put in the work, you still have to go and perform. She wasn’t mature enough and was a little overconfident last year. But she is self-driven. Her success is a culmination of hard work on and off the court. She changed her complete mental outlook. It comes down to preparation and dedication…months and months of training and talking about the therapy side of the sport that most kids don’t want to gravitate towards. She spent hours on Zoom during quarantine with my friend Adam Blicher, a sports psychologist in Denmark. She did all the little things needed to become successful. She was really motivated to take care of business and win her last year.”
“I worked on improving my serve and backhand, which has a lot of ups and downs. I also worked on my mental game. All of that combined really helped. The biggest thing is the way I walked into the match…I told myself to go out there and whatever happens will happen, just play your best,” said Ballarin.
Bogdaonovic warmed Ballarin up the morning of the state finals.
“She had already hit with Nestor earlier that morning. She had already hit for two hours before she got to the match,” said Bogdanovic. That’s who she is. She always wants to work. I knew she was going to have a great match. She wanted to play error free and she did.”
Ballarin works as hard in the classroom as she does on the court. An honor student, she will attend Bowdoin College next fall and continue to play tennis and major in pre-med.
A member of RI’s All-Decade Girls Tennis Team, Ballarin has won numerous awards including multiple USTA New England Sportsmanship Awards. Ballarin has reached her final high school goal, but the state singles champ has yet to take any time off – even though the Coronovirus has forced indoor courts to shut down for two weeks.
“She was the first to call me and ask me what the plan was during the pause,” said Bernabe. “She always wants to know what the plan is. She always wants to work.”