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Heart of tennis revealed at Girls' National Championships in San Diego
As Reese Brantmeier and Alexis Blokhina vividly demonstrate, the sport's biggest superpower might well be the way an individual can take responsibility for her or his own destiny.
Published Aug 11, 2022
TenniStory: USTA SoCal Pro Circuit
Hang out at a national junior tennis tournament and you’ll rapidly take in tennis’ communal qualities. There are the parents, the deeply devoted mothers and fathers who’ve invested considerable money and time in the quest to generate fine results. There are the coaches, many from the player’s hometown, some from the near and far academies they’ve practiced at, others from the USTA, all keen to witness their students attempt to put those lessons into play as effectively as possible on a big stage. Past the mid-teens, another community leader enters the picture: the college coach, bearing what many parents, coaches and players consider the pot of the gold, a scholarship.
All of that collective energy was apparent Tuesday in San Diego at the Barnes Tennis Center, site of the USTA Billie Jean King Girls’ 16s and 18s National Championships. Amid perfect weather conditions—75 degrees, with nary a trace of humidity—third-round action took place on the facility’s 22 courts. Coaches galore roamed the grounds, including longstanding notables Lele Forood from Stanford, Stella Sampras from UCLA, and Jamea Jackson, a veteran USTA coach who just last month was named head coach at Princeton.
Many more studied various players, including Sebastian Bader, assistant coach at the University of California at San Diego, and Vince Pulupa, owner and senior national coach of the OSSA Tennis Academy, a facility based in the Washington-Baltimore area. Billie Jean King is due at the event shortly. USTA head of women’s tennis, Kathy Rinaldi, will be coming too. Even the host city casts a prominent shadow. Such San Diego prodigies as Maureen Connolly and Karen Hantze Susman won this title and went on to win Wimbledon as teenagers. Those are just two of the names that adorn massive banners citing all of the players who’ve won this tournament over its lengthy history. As King loves to say, history can be both edifying and motivational.
From the parent to the coach to the potential college team and even possibly beyond, the message to the player becomes clear: You are part of a bigger community. Others are paying attention. As was once said in another context, when it comes to the development of a junior tennis player, it takes a village.
And yet, for all the ways those externalized, communal factors have shaped the junior tennis journey, separate conversations with two of the tournament’s top seeds revealed another compelling attribute.
“From a young age, I did a lot of team sports and I never really clicked with them,” said Reese Brantmeier, the number one seed in the 18s. “I think it was just the individuality of tennis that I loved so much. And I still really like that. Like getting to make your own decisions and express yourself and just, yeah, that individual aspect I love.”
Third-seeded Alexis Blokhina spoke similarly. “I like being alone on court and counting on myself,” she said. “If you win, that’s all because of you. And if you lose, that’s all because of you. And I think that accountability that you take on yourself teaches you a lot of maturity as well as confidence. I think it just teaches you a lot of life lessons that you wouldn’t learn in some other sports.”
Brantmeier and Blokhina spoke with me Tuesday following their victories. Brantmeier beat Arina Oreshchenkova, 6-1, 6-1, while Blokhina was the victor over Victoria Zhao, 6-2, 6-1. Brantmeier is from Whitewater, Wisconsin, the daughter of Becky, a school librarian, and Scott, a family practice doctor. Having won the 16s at Barnes three years ago, Brantmeier loves competing at this venue. But 12 months ago, she lost in the final of the 18s. “Trying to redeem myself,” she said about this year’s title quest.
Blokhina lived most of the first half of her life in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her father, Oleg, came to the U.S. from Ukraine as a teenager in the ‘90s and currently works as a vice president of banking for a technology startup. Blokhina’s mother, Russian-born Lyana, has a career in marketing and is also a yoga instructor. Blokhina’s younger brother, 15-year-old Nathan, plays too. When Alexis was nine, the family relocated to Plantation, Fla., so that she could train with Nick Saviano. Like Blokhina, Saviano is lefthanded, a former Top 50 ATP pro who over the last 35 years has coached many accomplished players, his most recent charges including Genie Bouchard and Sloane Stephens.
These two juniors will both be in college shortly, Brantmeier at the University of North Carolina, Blokhina at Stanford. As I sat alongside Forood during Blokhina’s match on Tuesday, we took in her powerful groundstrokes, particularly a forehand that can jump off the court, in some ways bearing a stylistic resemblance to such WTA pros as Angelique Kerber and Leylah Fernandez. “I like her attitude,” said Forood. “She’s a winner. She carries herself well.” Asked to define her assets as a tennis player, Blokhina says, “I think my feistiness and my ability to run for every ball . . . any weaknesses that I see in my opponent, I will keep pushing until they crack.”
Brantmeier’s favorite players are Roger Federer and Ash Barty. Like them, Brantmeier savors the chance to set up her big forehand with the slice backhand—the latter a shot she refined considerably when an injury suffered in 2019 forced Brantmeier to abandon the two-hander for a time. These days, like Barty, she’s grateful to have both shots.
Blokhina loves public speaking and hopes to eventually work in the media, perhaps as a sports broadcaster. While Brantmeier isn’t sure yet what life beyond tennis might be for her, she loves to paint portraits, including many of tennis players such as King and Federer.
The two are also friends and have practiced together. As I interviewed Blokhina, Brantmeier walked by. “Good job,” she said, the two exchanging a quick knuckle tap. Earlier this year, Blokhina beat Brantmeier in a third-set tiebreaker in the final of the Easter Bowl. “Alexis just came up with some good shots when she needed them,” Brantmeier said that day.
But they won’t be meeting one another in San Diego. On Wednesday, while Brantmeier beat Natalie Block, 6-4, 6-1, Blokhina was upset by Daria Smetannikov, 6-1, 7-5.
The temptation at this point is to enter the appraisal phase. Might Brantmeier win the title and therefore earn a highly desired wild card into the US Open main draw? How will each fare as summer continues? What’s to come in college? Can Blokhina indeed reach the level of a Kerber or Fernandez? How will Brantmeier’s zeal for Federer and Barty play out? Again and again, questions that treat the athlete more like a publicly-traded commodity expected to generate outcomes for stakeholders instead of as an individual, personally engaged in process.
So, this I’ll dare say: enough. The history of tennis shows that it’s impossible to forecast which juniors can even become pros, much less win Grand Slam titles. Instead, take in how much great tennis these two have already played by this stage of life. Pause and ponder how that’s also the case for everyone else competing at the Barnes Center this week. Each of these players is that dedicated child at the local park or club, the one you see hitting with her parent at 6:00 a.m., practicing serves at 6:00 p.m. Each will likely play college tennis. And hopefully, if they haven’t been too squeezed by external and internal pressures, expectations, and conjecture, each will continue to enjoy the sport for decades and take pride in how much of their heart and mind they’ve given to the game. Helpful as a community can be, as Brantmeier and Blokhina vividly demonstrate, tennis’ biggest superpower might well be the way an individual can take responsibility for her or his own destiny.