I will look at last weekend’s 2018 Kentucky High School Athletic Association state tennis championships from the perspective of an observer/coach and from the perspective of ethnography.
Match Impressions – Singles and Doubles Semifinal Rounds
Saint Xavier and Manual High School dueled in their regional contest and entered the final day of the state tennis tournament with 11 wins each. The doubles semifinal matches went on first and Manual was not represented. If St. X could win the semifinal as the #2 overall doubles seed, it would force Manual to have to win the singles semifinal versus Saint Xavier to tie St. X heading into the final round of singles and doubles play.
Saint Xavier’s #1 doubles team was comprised of 12th-grade students Preston Cameron and Will Stuckert. Cameron is signed to play Division 1 tennis at Butler University (Indianapolis, IN) in the Big East conference. Cameron won the previous two state doubles titles with two different partners and was seeking a 3rd state doubles title with a 3rd different partner. Stuckert is aiming to walk-on at the University of Dayton (Ohio), Division 1 NCAA program in the Atlantic 10 conference. Both players have huge serves. Stuckert and Cameron each stand over six feet tall with Cameron hawking the net and Stuckert striking powerful two-handed backhand returns from the ad side. They faced and beat a spirited team from Lexington Henry Clay high school featuring two left-handed players. The first set was exceptionally close with each team achieving only a single service break while fending off a number of breakpoints. Cameron and Stuckert took the first set 7-6, but the wind seemed to fall out of Henry Clay’s sails as the second set ended 6-0.
As a coach, I noticed that the truly top doubles teams (the #1 and #4 seeds were playing on the next court) hit spots in the service box setting up their net men in a manner that most other doubles teams I saw during the season couldn’t match. Jerking a returner around with well-placed serves or simply overpowering a returner often led to easy winners for the net man. When Henry Clay’s serving prowess dropped by even a small amount, Stuckert and Cameron pounced to reach the state final and to place St. X one point ahead of Manual.
Alex Westbrooks of St. Xavier was the #2 seed and faced the #3 seed from Manual in the semifinal round. It was a rematch of the regional singles final which Westbrooks won 6-2, 6-1. A Westbrooks win would result in a 10th straight team title for St. X whereas a Manual win would lead to both teams being tied heading into the singles and doubles finals. Westbrooks has signed to play Division 1 NCAA tennis at the University of Louisville (Kentucky) in the Atlantic Coast Conference. St. X boasting three 12th grade players with legitimate NCAA division 1 aspirations gives the high school a rich pool of talent for pursuing state titles.
The stakes were high and each player exchanged a break of serve to see the match even at 1-1 after two games. Westbrooks who has a great deal of variety in his game won the first set 6-3. St. X was one set from the state team title. Manual’s #1 player made some gut check holds to keep the second set close, but Westbrooks who was KY runner-up in 2016 and lost to the eventual KY champion in the 2017 semifinal round returned to the state final with a 6-3 second set victory. It was interesting to see Westbrooks drink Pedialyte at changeovers and manage slice backhands and net forrays in his methodical but difficult semifinal win. St. X had won the team title and now its trio of 12th-grade players had a shot at singles and doubles glory.
Match Impressions – Singles and Doubles Finals
Traditional rivals St. X and Trinity placed the top two seeds into the doubles draw at the state tournament. Trinity’s doubles team beat Cameron and Stuckert in a close 3rd set super tiebreak roughly 1 month before the state tournament. Trinity’s duo are brothers and won their semifinal match with a superior command of angles at the net, great service returns and passing shots, as well as a lot of great pick-up volleys. I watched a bit of their match during the St. X-Henry Clay semifinal as I wanted to know what our guys might be up against. They would be the high school equivalent of Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge as a team that breaks its opponents down with variety and quality. Stuckert and Cameron tended to win playing power doubles with big well-placed serves, great command of the net, and blunt force returns of serve. In my mind, this match was going to be headed toward another 3rd set tiebreak. The match, like the semifinal round, was to be played indoors due to rain. I felt like this was a benefit to our team as serves, overheads, etc. are harder to deal with indoors.
The match was tied at 2-2 after Trinity held. Four routine holds and everything seemed close until it wasn’t. Cameron held for 3-2, big returns led to the first service break for 4-2, Stuckert held for 5-2, and more thundering returns and cracking putaway volleys saw the #2 seeds grab the first set 6-2. I was pumped. Stuckert and Cameron seemed to loosen their shoulders a bit with one set in the bag while Trinity’s team looked like they had taken a standing 8 count. Cameron held, break of serve, Stuckert held, break of serve, Cameron held and suddenly it was 6-2, 5-0. The match and state doubles title seemed to be decided. The St. X fans, players, and coaches were going crazy.
Trinity steadied their position a bit by holding serve. 6-2, 5-1. Then Trinity hit some great lobs, some nice angle volleys, and grabbed a break. 6-2, 5-2. Then Trinity held with some clutch serving hitting many lines (I can attest as I was sitting right next to the ad side service box). 6-2, 5-3. Then Trinity broke again! 6-2, 5-4 on serve. Trinity held. 6-2, 5-5. The match that seemed headed toward a 3rd set tiebreak before it began was back on course for its pre-match trajectory. Stuckert held for 6-2, 6-5. Trinity saved 3 match points and held for 6-2, 6-6. The second set tiebreak went in Trinity’s favor early. Trinity led 5-2. St. X got 1 of 2 points, but Cameron and Stuckert trailed 3-6. St. X saved 3 consecutive set points including two on Trinity’s serve to reach 6-6. St. X held another point to grab yet another match point. Stuckert then hit a screaming two-handed backhand return off a lefty serve out wide in the ad court to force a volleying error and win the match. Cameron had his 3rd state doubles title with 3 different partners and Stuckert had the backhand return heard around the Commonwealth as St. X added a doubles state title to its team title.
Match Impressions – The State Singles Final
Alex Westbrooks had an opportunity to earn St. X a triple crown (in horse country this means a lot). The #1 seed and defending state champion had been upset by the 4th seed Robby Krick of Ashland Paul Blazer High School. Krick had ended the match with a thunderous barrage of unreturnable serves in a 3rd set tiebreak. Westbrooks who has a powerful forehand and serve, but who generally wins by using the right shot at the right time, mixing spins and paces, attacking the net when possible, counterpunching under pressure, etc. was going to be facing a player with a massive power game. Krick has signed to play tennis at the College of Charleston (South Carolina) in the NCAA Division 1 Colonial Athletic Association.
I think it is important to give a sense of the athleticism possessed by Westbrooks and Kirck. Westbrooks’ father played NCAA tennis at LSU (Louisiana) and his uncle on his mother’s side is former top 50 ATP pro, Luis Herrera. Krick was a two-sport varsity athlete playing both basketball and tennis for his high school in an era of one-sport specialization. To be a division 1 level tennis player and to play basketball for a large part of his high school careers speaks to Krick’s athletic abilities.
Westbrooks served, as Krick’s coach told me after the match, “surgically.” Westbrooks did not blast aces, but he moved Krick around by hitting varied spots in the service box. This helped set up Westbrooks’ groundstrokes and at times volleys. Krick was broken in the first game of the match. Trailing 1-3 Krick made a mini-run by holding and breaking serve for 3-3. Westbrooks immediately broke back and held and broke again to end the first set 6-3. Breaking Krick 3 times on an indoor court gives one a sense of Westbrooks’ reflexes and the strength of his return game as Krick has a massive serve. Westbrooks continued to use his variety to attack when possible and his foot speed to make Krick hit another ball whenever necessary to grind out a 6-2 second set victory. This wrapped up a highly successful day that started with St. X tied with Manual 11-11. It ended with St. X holding the state singles and doubles titles as well as winning the team title 15-11 over Manual High School.
Coming Soon – Part 2