MONTGOMERY, Ala. ---- During his time at Auburn Montgomery from 2001-04, Guilherme Prata was a men's tennis NAIA All-American and part of two national championship winning teams.
Five years after graduation, he again began playing tennis competitively, though tennis shoes are no longer required.
Three years after he began participating, Prata is now an international top-10 beach tennis player.
The sport is a combination of tennis and beach volleyball. It is played on sand, with players using specialized rackets and depressurized tennis balls. Originally founded in Italy roughly 30 years ago, it became an international sport in 2008 when the International Tennis Federation founded the ITF Beach Tennis Tour (BTT).
Prata, who returned to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil after leaving AUM, began playing the sport in 2009.
"Beach tennis began as simply a fun thing to do on the beach," Prata said. "But it became a competitive sport for me very quickly. I was doing well and I started to play more and more. Six months after I started playing, I was already competing for Brazil in an international competition.
"The most important thing that beach tennis did for me is it gave me another chance to compete again. And that is what I love to do, I love to compete."
Prata has achieved success in tennis throughout his life, whether he is playing on a court or at the beach.
While at AUM, he finished with a 65-13 record across singles and doubles, including a 36-3 mark during his senior season in 2004. Prata earned Second-Team NAIA All-American honors that year, and he led the men's team to its fifth national championship as a team captain.
That success has carried over to the sand. Prata has achieved an international ranking as high as number nine in the world, with a current ranking of 10. Prata and former partner Vinicius Font each have 450 ranking points, and are the highest-ranking players in the world from a country besides Italy. Rankings are determined by a player's best six doubles results over the most-recent 52 weeks.
Prata has won six international doubles tournaments, three each in 2011 and 2012. He teamed with Font for five of those titles, though the partnership ended after the 2012 season.
"We played together for three years," Prata said. "It was a very successful partnership. Against Brazilian teams, we had over 150 wins and only four losses. It will be a big challenge this year to find a new partner."
There are a few notable differences when tennis is moved onto the sand. Players are not allowed any faults, and just as in beach volleyball the ball can be served to either opponent. The scoring system is the same, though there is no-advantage after deuce, and the point is over when the ball hits the sand.
Though they do not count towards the rankings, many tournaments hold singles events along with the standard doubles format. Prata won the singles championship at the 2011 US Open in Long Beach, N.Y., a moment which he states is his most memorable as a beach tennis player. He also captained Brazil last July at the first World Team Championships in Moscow, leading his country to a second-place finish behind the powerhouse Italian team.
Beach tennis is not yet established enough for Prata to play the sport full-time. He maintains his tennis roots by running a small school in Rio de Janeiro. His new sport is growing, however, and he received enough financial support from sponsors to play in over 10 tournaments abroad last season.
Prata expects this growth to continue, and he envisions a future in which beach tennis reaches the highest of international stages.
"The sporting is growing at a very fast pace," Prata said. "The first year that we had a circuit in 2008, there were only 17 tournaments. By the end of 2012, we had more than 100 tournaments and more than 1000 ranked players.
"It is present on all continents now. There are more than one million players around the world, and I believe it will be an Olympic sport in the future."