Thursday, June 23, 2011

Harvard Law School can wait

   CHICO – Philip Bester’s future is on the court. Blake Strode’s is in one.
   The top-seeded Bester bested the sixth-seeded Strode 6-4, 6-2 in the wind Sunday to win the $15,000 Balbutin’s Chico Pharmacy Tennis Classic at the Chico Racquet Club & Resort.
   Don’t feel bad for Strode, though. He has an acceptance to Harvard Law School waiting for him if he gives up professional tennis in the next three years.
   Bester, meanwhile, continued his rise in the world rankings with his fifth career Futures singles title but first this year. Ranked No. 244 entering the tournament, he rose to a career-high No. 229 and could crack the top 200 soon.
   Bester and Strode are both slim, 6-foot-2 right-handers with powerful serves and forehands. They are also close in age at 22 and 23, respectively.
   That’s where the similarities end, though. Bester is a white Canadian from Vancouver, Strode a black American from St. Louis.
   Bester attended the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Fla., for four years as a teenager, reached the French Open junior boys final at 17 and turned pro at the same age.
   Strode stayed home to attend Pattonville High School, graduated from the University of Arkansas in economics and Spanish in 2009 and reached the singles semifinals of the NCAA championships the same month.
   Finally, Bester has a one-handed backhand, whereas Strode uses two hands on that wing.
   Bester’s impressive array of shots also includes a crisp volley. The mental side, however, has taken longer to develop than his shots.
   “I’ve become mentally tougher,” said Bester, who has improved his year-end ranking from No. 809 to No. 510 to No. 278 in the past three years. “I’ve learned to close out games when I need to. I’ve learned to just play the game of tennis smarter and not always go out on the court and feel like I have to win. It’s been a big mental battle, and I feel I’ve gotten much stronger mentally.”
   Bester’s experience was the difference Sunday as he coped with the wind better than Strode. Aside from several aborted service tosses, Bester appeared largely unaffected. Strode, however, repeatedly mis-hit the ball and grew increasingly agitated, overhitting his forehand several times in the second set. 
   “I knew the conditions were going to be tough,” Bester said, “and I’ve learned from experience that when it’s windy, instead of getting frustrated, (it’s better to) try to use it to my advantage.
   “I know the ball is going to be moving just as much on his side of the net as it is on mine, so it was important for me to hit to bigger targets than usual to give myself a bigger margin for error and make (fewer) unforced errors than my opponent.”
   Strode, ranked No. 543 entering the tournament, had his nine-match Futures winning streak stopped after ending Daniel Kosakowski’s run at eight matches in the semifinals. Strode, coming off a Futures title in Tampa, Fla. last month, said he “just made too many mistakes” against Bester.
   “I was struggling with the ball moving around a little bit in this wind, and he was being really consistent,” continued Strode, whose father, Lester, is the bullpen coach for the Chicago Cubs. “He was playing smart, using a lot of slices and kind of letting the conditions do some of the work.
   “That’s what you have to play through sometimes, and I didn’t do a good job of playing solid on a lot of the bigger points. … With him and the conditions, it was a double whammy – hard to deal with.”
   Strode won the first six points of the match, but it was downhill from there. After both players held serve for 1-1, Strode trailed the rest of the way.
   When Bester broke serve twice to lead 4-1, it appeared he would breeze – so to speak – in the first set. But then he lost his serve for the only time in the match. Strode fought back to 4-5 before Bester held serve for the set.
   Strode lost his serve in the first game of the second set on a mis-hit backhand and was broken again, with the help of two consecutive loose forehands from 40-15, to trail 2-5. Bester converted his second match point when a Strode backhand sailed long.
   Strode said he still plans to attend Harvard Law School before his annual deferrals expire. Bester also hopes graduation is in his future – to the ATP Tour, the major leagues of tennis.
   “I knew from the beginning (pro tennis) was going to take a lot of hard work, that it’s not just going to come to me,” he said. “It’s not easy traveling and being away from home and going from place to place every week, but it’s a part of it, and I’m very thankful I have the opportunity to do this for a living.
   “I really want to take it in as much as possible and do everything I can so that one day I look back and don’t have any regrets.”

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