Juniors look to mold victory on clay
Last year at the United States Tennis Association (USTA) Clay Court Super Nationals, junior tennis player, Fletcher Keyes went up against a foe that he couldn’t surmount mononucleosis. Leaving in the middle of his first match, he soon discovered a bad sore throat was the dreaded virus and he took the next flight home.
This year, Keyes, a senior at the Winter School is feeling healthy and hoping that he can make a big splash at the high-level 18-and-under tournament in Rockville, Maryland to improve his spot in the national rankings and make an impression on the many college coaches that will be present throughout the tourney.
"This is a big summer for me, "Keyes said. "This is the biggest summer for me in terms of college scouts."
Keyes will be joined by three other Park City junior players who are headed to college tennis programs this fall. Nick VonDerAhe, Matt Kunkel and Nick Perez will also make the trip back east to try their luck on clay.
The tournament, which will be held, July 16-23, will host some of the top juniors in the nation. In order to qualify, players must be ranked in the top four regionally or among the top 200 players in the nation. The Park City contingent is entering on their national rankings and couldn’t be more eager to see how they stack up against their peers. This is the first time qualifying for Kunkel. Keyes and VonDerAhe both made the cut last year.
"I’m kind of excited," Kunkel said. "They’ve all done it before."
The tournament runs much like the clay tournament granddaddy of them all Wimbledon — which just wrapped up over the weekend. The players must wear all white and each game will have ball boys and line judges.
"You feel like you’re big time, even if you’re not," said VonDerAhe, laughing.
Preparing for the tournament has proven to be a bit of a challenge. There are only two clay courts one at a private home in Oakley and one in Salt Lake for the young men to train on, so practice time is at a premium. In the last few weeks, the group has planned frequent trips to the Oakley court to work on the specialized footwork and ball control needed for the clay surface.
"On clay, you want to really move our feet," explained Kunkel. "You want to hit the ball 10 feet over the net and you want to play more conservative, more safe."
The clay surface makes the ball bounce more and points take a bit longer, so the boys say that they have been training to be able to run a lot more during games. When the clay is not available, the men are just trying to play as much as possible so they can prepare for the intense competition.
"We’ve got to make sure our all-over game is strong and make adjustments on clay," Keyes said.
Besides the mono setback, Keyes has also been battling a nagging wrist injury for most of the year. The pain sidelined him from the prep tennis season and affected his tournament play, but he says that he has the injury under control this summer.
"I can actually play with it now," he said. "My goal is to stay healthy."
All of athletes are ranked right around 200 and are hoping to represent well at the event. Many of the best young players will be returning from Junior Wimbledon for the American tournament. Even with many players ahead of them, it is a real possibility that any one of them could go far, and make names for themselves nationally.
"All of the best kids are going there. That’s why it would be awesome to win two or three," VonDerAhe said.
One thing is for sure none of them want to go home the first day.
"It’s kind of a big deal playing so far away," VonDerAhe said. "You want to play your best."
They all agree that what separates them from many of the top players is not skill or talent, but a higher level of experience and confidence.
"It’s really pretty mental," VonDerAhe said. "None of the guys have better strokes than any of us."
"It’s all confidence," added Kunkel.
Even winning one match would give the Park City players a lot of points towards their national raking, and doing well against athletes in the top 100 would mean even more.
All of the men will be playing both singles and doubles, and feel like they can match up well with opponents in both. Perez and VonDerAhe will be playing in doubles competition together and Keyes and Kunkel are both paired with out of state players.
After this tournament, they will all look ahead to try and qualify for the Hardcourt Championships in Kalamazoo, Mich. in August.
The four will board a plane bound for Maryland on Friday to allow time to adjust to the altitude and humidity and orient themselves on the courts. Play will begin on Sunday. For more information and results, visit http://www.usta.com.
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Court report: Week of June 22