Tuesday, June 16, 2015

No small feat: Volynets, 13, could surpass Bellis

NorCal Sectional Girls 16 champion Katie Volynets, left, and runner-up Jillian
Taggart pose with tournament director Martin Kosan. Photo by Paul Bauman
   SACRAMENTO — Three years ago, CiCi Bellis of Atherton won the girls 18 singles title in the NorCal Junior Sectional Championships at only 13 years old.
   Bellis stood only 5-foot-3 1/2  (1.61 meters) and weighed just 85 pounds (38.6 kilograms) at the time. She has gone on to stun Australian Open women's runner-up Dominika Cibulkova in the first round of U.S. Open last August, end last year as the No. 1 junior in the world and climb to No. 170 in the women's world rankings as an amateur.
   Now, along comes an even smaller 13-year-old phenom from the San Francisco Bay Area.
   The appropriately named Katie Volynets, a Walnut Creek resident who's all of 5 feet (1.52 meters) and 80 pounds (36.3 kilograms), won the 16-and-under title today in the NorCal Girls' 18 & 16 Junior Sectional Championships at Arden Hills Resort & Spa.
   Seeded third, Volynets outlasted fourth-seeded Jillian Taggart of Fair Oaks in the Sacramento region 4-6, 6-2, 6-2 in the final on a day when the temperature reached 93 degrees (33.9 Celsius).  
   Bellis and Volynets share more than their Sectional titles at an early age, small size and Bay Area residences. Both won USTA girls 12-and-under national hardcourt championships (although Bellis added the clay-court title in the same age group). Bellis was ranked fourth nationally in the 14s when she won the Sectionals; Volynets is sixth.
    Volynets' coach, Richard Tompkins, said he saw Bellis play at age 13.   
    "I feel a little uncomfortable saying this because I'm friends with the Bellis family and I've known Lori (CiCi's mother) for over 20 years — and I'm a little biased — but Katie is better at 13 than CiCi was, in my opinion," Tompkins said on the telephone from Fremont. "CiCi at 13, even though she was winning a ridiculous amount of matches, was playing more of a counterpunch style and grinding players down. Between 13 and 15, those were huge development years for CiCi. She developed more weapons and (improved at) controlling points.
   "Katie's game is more developed than CiCi's was at 13. Katie is playing more aggressively off both sides. She's hitting the ball a little bit harder than CiCi was at 13, so she has better offensive skills than CiCi did at 13."   
   Another precocious Tompkins disciple, 15-year-old Rachel Eason of Union City, captured the 18-and-under Sectional title. Eason dismantled talented but erratic Jenna Friedel, a 17-year-old Mill Valley resident, 6-1, 6-3 in the tournament featuring Northern California's best juniors.
   Tompkins lauded Volynets and Eason as "fierce competitors. I'd rather have a fiercely competitive athlete than an athlete who's talented but not as competitive. Competitiveness and a strong work ethic will take you really, really far. Both those girls are fierce competitors and work probably harder than any other kid in Northern California, and that's why they're both achieving the success that they are." 
Volynets, 5 feet and 80 pounds, won the last six games in
her 4-6, 6-2, 6-2 win over Taggart. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Volynets, though, is anything but volatile on the court. She is amazingly mature, never getting too high or too low. There are pros who could learn from her businesslike approach. Volynets even works on her game between points, taking practice swings in slow motion to simulate perfect technique.
   "She's obviously a very gifted athlete," Tompkins said, "but there's a lot of gifted athletes who never even come close to maximizing their potential because of either their work ethic or their internal drive or level of focus. ...
   "(Volynets) pushes herself so hard, whether it's in practice or tournaments. Even when she's exhausted, she'll continue to push and push and push. She has a will that just won't stop."
   Volynets has met Bellis, now listed at 5-foot-6 (1.68 meters) and a whopping 110 pounds (50 kilograms), once.
   "A couple of years ago, I was invited to her house, and we hit together," Volynets said. "We still keep in touch (by text) and have been trying to get together."
   Volynets' parents emigrated from Ukraine — where her mother, Anna, was a top swimmer —19 years ago. Katie, an articulate eighth-grader-to-be at Walnut Creek Intermediate, said her goal in tennis is "to be a top professional. I need to continue focusing on tennis and school as much as possible, and then we'll see what's going to happen."
   All that Volynets seems to lack is size.
   "Is Katie going to have to grow between now and 17?" Tompkins said. "Of course, because unfortunately professional tennis has become such a power sport. The little guy is almost becoming extinct.
   "Katie doesn't have the luxury of having any weaknesses. She has to move faster than her competition, and she needs to become smarter than her competition. She has to develop her whole game. That's the approach right now, learning to hit every single shot out there and becoming one of the most intelligent players out there."
   So far, so good. When asked how she routinely beats older, bigger players, Volynets said, "A big factor is stepping inside the baseline whenever I get a shorter ball ... attacking it and making sure I place the balls."
  Taggart, 5-foot-8 (1.73 meters) at 14 years old, became so mentally drained in the final that she dropped the last six games of the match.
   "I got a little tired and lost my focus mentally," explained Taggart, who double-faulted meekly into the net on Volynets' first match point. "And she was steady the whole time, so congrats to her."
   It wasn't the heat that got to Taggart. It was Volynets.
   "She's probably the mentally toughest person here," Taggart asserted. "She doesn't give you any free points; you have to earn every point. You know it's going to be a battle."
   Taggart, ranked 14th nationally in the 14s, played with her left wrist taped because of an inflamed tendon that had sidelined her for six weeks. She admitted that the wrist hurt on her two-handed backhand but didn't want to use it an excuse.
   "It wasn't really a factor today," she said before going swimming with Volynets at Arden Hills, where Olympic multiple gold-medal swimmers Mark Spitz and Debbie Meyer trained in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Girls 18 champion Rachel Eason, right, and runner-up Jenna Friedel pose
with Kosan. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Eason, 5-foot-7 (1.70 meters), has a strong first serve and dangerous flat forehand. Pinning Friedel to the baseline with deep shots and outsteadying her, Eason captured the biggest title of her life. She had lost in the Sectional 12- and 14-and-under singles finals but won the doubles crowns in those age groups.
   Winning the 18-and-under singles title "means a lot to me," Eason gushed. "It's the worst to lose in the finals because you're so close."
   Eason also avenged a 6-4, 6-3 loss to Friedel in last year's Sectional 16-and-under semifinals. Friedel went on to win the title.
   "I believed in myself more than I did last time, and I kept fighting and going for it," said Eason, who's ranked 81st nationally in her first year in the 16s. I've been playing better lately. 
   "I guess I've been taking my mental skills more seriously — after losing a point, calming myself down. Usually, I just get mad and it translates to the next point, and it keeps going from there."
   Friedel can relate. She was as emotional as Volynets was stoic, berating herself after her frequent misses, swatting one ball against the fence and, to pump herself up, yelling "C'mon" after winners.
Eason earned the biggest title of her life. Photo by Paul Bauman
  Friedel was so disappointed in her forehand that she held an impromptu practice session after the first set, dropping balls in front of her and hitting them to the other side of the court. After a USTA official told her she couldn't use match balls, Friedel ran over to her racket bag, pulled out a few practice balls and returned to the baseline for her self-taught clinic.
   "I didn't know what she was doing," marveled Eason, adding that she had never seen such a stunt during a match. "I know she's kind of fiery. I knew anything could happen, so I was kind of prepared for it."
   Eason will be a sophomore at James Logan High School. No home-schooling for her.
   "School is a good experience for you," she declared. "School to me is a lot more important. I take school more seriously than tennis."
   That's saying something.
   Said Tompkins: "One of the things I try to teach — which probably only 10 percent of the students I coach are totally on board with, although they agree with the philosophy — is you don't have to be a professional tennis player to do the things that pro tennis players do.
   "This is something that Rachel Eason and Katie Volynets have bought into. They practice and prepare just like a tennis professional. The only things that separate them are they don't hit the ball quite as accurately and they're not making money. But they take their tennis seriously."            

1 comment:

  1. How many hours a week so they train & how much $$ is invested in this "available" to everyone sport?