Boston Lobsters’ Eric Butorac flying high
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How could anyone have known? Who could have predicted that a 14-year-old’s words would prove prophetic, that the lofty goals scribbled onto a quarter-sheet of notebook paper would not only become fulfilled, but surpassed many times over?
When directed by his sixth-grade teacher to write about his aspirations, Eric Butorac misunderstood the assignment, limiting his responses to viewing desires: Take in a game at Madison Square Garden. Watch the Masters. Visit Wimbledon.
Now 31, Butorac has played at Wimbledon six times. Check that off the list.
Understand, professional tennis players rarely emerge from Minnesota, where the frigid climate necessitates playing indoors for eight months out of the year. Even fewer professional tennis players come from Division 3 colleges in Minnesota, which makes Butorac somewhat of an anomaly, even if tennis never gave him a reason to stop climbing high.
Entering his third season with the Boston Lobsters of World TeamTennis, the doubles specialist once ranked 17th in the world took an abnormal route to pro tennis, one marked by spurts of reassurance but never a breakthrough.
“I never really had the one huge moment where I was like, ‘Wow, all of a sudden I’m here,’ ” Butorac said. “It was sort of like little steps along the way. That’s what I tell to people who want to make it someday. I say, it takes a lot of years of a lot of hard work, and if you put those in, it’s definitely possible.”
What began as a mere hobby, practiced after school at the tennis club his parents owned, a small six-court hangout spot with an everyone-knows-your-name feel, Butorac decided to take tennis seriously around age 16, two years after he dreamed of once visiting the All England Club. He was always one of the better players in Minnesota and soon became a state champion.
Now, about that list of goals. Butorac recently dug up the sheet, and found with it another 10 goals for his tennis game. The first was to get a better first serve. The 10th was to win the Minnesota state tennis tournament. That goal had an exclamation point attached to it.
“That seemed like the most far-reaching,” Butorac said. “Even that one was 10 of 10. There was nothing below it.”
Turns out, Butorac had everything in front of him. He became the 2003 NCAA Division 3 singles and doubles champion at Gustavus Adolphus (Minn.) College, his father’s alma mater. Some friends were heading to Europe to play professionally, so Butorac came along. Six months, he figured, maybe a year. Afterward, he would get on with his real life. He might become a high school teacher. He always enjoyed being around kids and providing service. Working with others was always more rewarding.
What he thought was a long shot turned into a career.
“I think a lot of people probably thought I was crazy,” Butorac said. “But you know what, I’m going to try to play at the next level, with no real expectations. I think that’s what helped me succeed even more. I was just looking at it as an opportunity to almost get a master’s degree in tennis.
“I don’t have a distinct goal. I never have and I never will.”
His first three years were marked by plenty of travel and not much money. More than once, he almost packed it in and went home. He almost accepted a college coaching job, but won a few tournaments and knew he couldn’t yet quit.
“He’s so much surpassed any thoughts or goals that I had. I didn’t have any goals, levels that I thought he’d reach,” Eric’s father, Tim Butorac, said. “I think he’d probably tell you the same thing. I think as you ascend to those levels, you realize that they’re not out of reach, that you can play with those guys.”
But there were the times he wondered why he was in France in the first place. He called his dad with hardship stories of sleeping in locker rooms because they are cheaper than hotels, or the five-hour drives through winding French towns, three players stuffed into a cramped vehicle like a clown car. He played in clubs with no audible English, where the locals decide to put American players on clay courts just for the heck of it, even though the tournament advertised a hard surface.
Butorac remembers standing in empty railroad stations, blanketed by French blizzards, wondering when the train would arrive, so he could travel alone to the next small town, to crowded rooms and language barriers, to more meals of Ramen noodles and salad.
“Maybe you sit there for a couple hours, but eventually the train comes, ” Butorac said. “You go to the next city, and life goes on. The next day you wake up, it’s a little better, you realize I’m playing a sport for a living, living a life I never thought I would, and that things are good.”Continued...