Sunday, August 24, 2014

Neighborly advice: Keep an eye on Roseville trio

Roger Federer posed with Sam Riffice, far left, three years
ago at the La Quinta resort in the Palm Springs area. Riffice,
12 at the time, is now 6 feet tall. Also shown are Riffice's
coach, Amine Khaldi, second from left, and Khaldi's friend
Steve Mohibi. Photo courtesy of Amine Khaldi.
   Sam Riffice grew up in the same Sacramento-area development as brothers Keenan and Aidan Mayo.
   Now the focus is on the tennis development of the promising juniors, splintering both Roseville families.
   Riffice (pronounced RIFF-iss), ranked No. 6 nationally in the 16-and-unders, has been based at the USTA Training Center Headquarters in Boca Raton, Fla., for almost two years.
   The 15-year-old, who has hit with young American pros Denis Kudla and Ryan Harrison at the center, received a wild card into U.S. Open boys qualifying next week in Flushing Meadows, N.Y.
   Keenan Mayo, ranked No. 1 in the 14s, and Aidan, No. 4 in the 12s, are situated at the USTA Training Center West in Carson.   
   Keenan, 14, has been compared to world No. 7 Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic. Aidan, 11, has dazzled U.S. pros Steve Johnson, Sam Querrey and Mardy Fish in Carson with his quickness, clean strokes and pro-like comportment.
   "Keenan has great natural power," observed Vahe Assadourian, the Mayos' coach at the USTA center and previously at the Gorin Tennis Academy in the Sacramento suburb of Granite Bay. "Aidan is just a great athlete. He's talented in more ways than probably I've ever seen. He's capable of things most pros on the tour can't do now -- the way he positions himself on the court and transitions from offense to defense and into the net. He has every shot. He volleys great, can hit topspin and slice and has great movement. He's built to be a professional athlete in multiple sports.
   "Johnson, Querrey, Fish and other male and female pros ranked 60 to 200 see him hit, and they're amazed. They start asking questions about him, and they don't do that with any other player."
   Amine Khaldi, one of Riffice's coaches, cited "mental (toughness) and love of the game" as his pupil's greatest strengths.
   "He takes that extra step, working harder than anybody," said Khaldi, a teaching pro at the Gold River Racquet Club in the Sacramento region. "That's his mentality. He really pushes the envelope. He wakes up early for conditioning and does what it takes to get better. He doesn't just work on his strengths; he works on his weaknesses so he can close the gap.
   "He also watches tennis (on television); you don't see kids doing that. He spends long hours watching the top pros."
   Riffice's mother, Lori, recently quit her job as a teaching pro at the Johnson Ranch Racquet Club in Roseville after 23 years and moved to Boca Raton. Sam's father, Eric, remains in Roseville. An air traffic controller, he's a year and a half from retirement. Sam's two siblings, older brothers who do not play tennis, are in college. 
   The Mayos moved to Southern California with their father, Jim, four months ago. The boys' mother, Brigitte, stayed in Roseville. Both parents are attorneys, and they have no other children.
Keenan, right, and Aidan Mayo display their
medals at the USTA National Selection Tour-
nament in Austin, Texas, in February. Aidan
won the boys 12 singles, and Keenan was the
runner-up in boys 14 singles. Photo courtesy
of Jim Mayo.
   Sam Riffice and Keenan Mayo have far more in common than growing up a few houses apart and training at the USTA centers. The parallels, in fact, are eerie:
   -- Both are already 6 feet (1.82 meters) tall with classic American games featuring big serves and forehands.
   -- In last month's USTA National Clay Court Championships, Mayo won the boys 14 singles title in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., while Riffice took the boys 16 doubles crown (with Vasil Kirkov) in Delray Beach, Fla.
   -- Riffice reached the round of 16 in the prestigious Les Petits As (The Small Champions), for players 12 to 14, in Tarbes, France, last year. Mayo advanced to the quarterfinals of the tournament this year. Past champions include Rafael Nadal, Michael Chang, Martina Hingis, Kim Clijsters and Lindsay Davenport.
   Riffice and Mayo shouldn't feel too bad about not winning the title. Neither did Roger Federer or Novak Djokovic when they played in Tarbes.
   -- Riffice was one of three boys on the U.S. team in last year's ITF World Junior Finals, for players 14 and under, on clay in the Czech Republic. Mayo played on this year's team. The United States finished second among 16 teams last year and seventh this year as Mayo went 2-0 in singles and 3-2 in doubles.
   -- Like Lori Riffice, Brigitte Mayo has the tennis background in the family. She played Northern California junior tournaments while growing up in San Jose before focusing on academics at UCLA.
   Jim Mayo, who's 6-foot-7 1/2, comes from a basketball family. He played on the junior varsity at Colgate, near Syracuse, N.Y., and his 6-foot-4 sister Suzanne played with Rebecca Lobo for powerhouse Connecticut in the early 1990s. 
   The similarities between Riffice and Keenan Mayo provide an irresistible angle for the media, irking Keenan's parents.
   "We'd like to see Keenan stand on his own and not always be in Sam's shadow," Jim Mayo admitted. "Sam probably doesn't want to be linked to Keenan all the time, either. It almost detracts from their individual achievements."
The Mayos pose in Pensacola, Fla., in March after the
USTA National Spring Team Championships in Mo-
bile, Ala. Keenan won a silver ball for second place.
Photo courtesy of Jim Mayo
   But even Jim Mayo admits "it's almost a carbon copy" and that he and Brigitte "have used Sam's success as a template for Keenan and Aidan in terms of the way he's navigating through the tennis world."
   Added Keenan Mayo: "I know what (Riffice) has done the year before when he was my age. He's a guideline."
   Riffice and Keenan Mayo met eight or nine years ago when they played on opposing basketball teams in a youth league. Predictably, they describe each other in similar terms.
   "He was the best player on his team," Riffice recalled. "They won by one or two points. He was pretty wild and energetic. He was always running around."
   Mayo remembered that Riffice was "definitely competitive, pretty hard core."
   Because Riffice has always been one age group ahead of Mayo, they have rarely faced each other in tennis tournaments.
   "I've never lost to him in a match or practice," said Riffice, a singles quarterfinalist in the USTA Boys 16 National Championships in Kalamazoo, Mich., earlier this month. "It gets pretty intense in practice. It's no different than in a match. We really want to beat each other. We're both really competitive. We don't want to lose in anything."
   Six months ago, "Sam was probably four inches taller than Keenan," Jim Mayo said. Keenan is projected to be 6-foot-4 (1.94 meters) or, like Berdych, 6-foot-5 (1.96 meters).
   "I'm a little more consistent and stronger (than Mayo) right now," said Riffice, whose father is 6-foot-2 (1.88 meters). "I can handle his pace. But if he keeps growing, he's going to be a lot tougher."
   Aidan, under 5 feet (1.52 meters), is considerably smaller than Keenan was at 11.
   "Keenan is going to be bigger, but Aidan is going to be faster," Brigitte Mayo said.
   Aidan won the Little Mo Nationals three years ago in Austin, Texas. Past champions include Andy Roddick and Harrison.
    This year in the boys 12s, Aidan reached the semifinals of the USTA National Clay Courts in Winston-Salem, N.C., and the quarterfinals of the USTA Nationals in Little Rock, Ark.
   Brigitte Mayo could tell Keenan and Aidan -- whose names were chosen from among 10,000 in a book, not because of Irish heritage -- were natural athletes when they were infants.
   "Before Keenan could walk on his 10-month birthday," she recalled, "he would go into the closet and hit Ping-Pong balls in the air with a metal hanger. It was unbelievable. I have pretty good hand-eye coordination, and I could hit one out of 10 balls. He could hit nine out of 10. It was insane."
   When did Brigitte know Aidan was athletically gifted?
   "When he came out of the womb," she asserted.
Riffice and Khaldi relax after a tough workout.
Photo courtesy of Amine Khaldi
   Like Keenan, Aidan excelled in baseball, basketball and soccer before settling on tennis.
   "He was the best one (in the league) in all the sports he played," Brigitte said of her ambidextrous younger son. "He was an incredible athlete from the get-go.
   "His feet when he played soccer were as if he was dribbling the ball with his hands. His first soccer coach played in college. He said, 'I've never seen anything like this kid.' "
   Aidan attended public school through the fourth grade but now -- like Keenan and Riffice, both high school freshmen -- studies independently.
   "At regular school, you get to see your friends every day, but with homeschool, you get to focus on tennis," said Aidan, who will begin the sixth grade next month. "I like homeschool more. You don't have to sit at your desk all day listening to the teacher."
   Riffice began playing tennis at 5 on a racquetball court because at the time he lived in Graeagle, a mountain town northeast of Sacramento where it often snowed.
  "He always had good hand-eye coordination," Lori Riffice said. "You could tell early that he had good hands. He had good touch on volleys. He was a catcher in baseball."
   Sam was 11 the first time he defeated his mother in tennis.
   "It's a moment you always want as a parent and coach," Lori said. "I was pretty upset but proud."
   All three juniors hope to play professionally.
   "I want to become the best pro I can, hopefully top five," Keenan Mayo said. "Those are my dreams. I hope if I keep working hard, it will work out."

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