Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Sacramento junior soars to No. 1 during pandemic

Emon van Loben Sels poses with his trophy at the USTA
Level 1 Spring Individual Championships, March 6-9 in
Mobile, Ala. Photo courtesy of Emon van Loben Sels
   The pandemic hasn't hurt Emon van Loben Sels' game.
   In fact, the scourge has helped it.
   "Pre-Covid, I wasn't receiving the best results, and I was never satisfied," conceded van Loben Sels, a Sacramento, Calif., resident ranked No. 1 nationally in the boys 16s. "I almost came home from Winter Nationals (at the beginning of 2020) without winning a match. The quarantine was a perfect chance for me to change that.
   "Once all the (clubs) got shut down, I started training on clay with my friends like Dylan (Tsoi) and Michael (Gravel). Once tournaments started again, I gained confidence after every win. Ever since then, I've been happy with my results, and things have been going my way. But I'm still pretty far from my ultimate goal, so I'm going to keep working hard."
   Van Loben Sels, a 16-year-old homeschooled sophomore, hopes to play professionally. He won the 16-and-under singles title in USTA Level 1 Spring Individual Championships, March 6-9 on hardcourts in Mobile, Ala., after capturing a Level 2 tournament in Newport Beach, Calif., in February.
   In the Mobile final, van Loben Sels beat close friend Mitchell Lee of Oakland, Calif., 7-5, 6-4. They train together almost every weekend, van Lobel Sels said.
   "Recently, he's actually changed his game style," Lee said. "He started to be more aggressive. His retrieving skills and touch are definitely key strengths. His biggest strength is neutralizing the point when he's on defense. He's able to get himself out of tough situations."
   Van Loben Sels' coaches at the Spare Time Junior Tennis Academy — Dima Hrynashka, Kiryl Harbatsiuk and Eric Roberson — have emphasized aggressiveness. 
   "All my life, I played aggressive tennis and found it's more beneficial," said Harbatsiuk, a former Sacramento State star from Belarus who played briefly on the Futures Tour. "I'm trying to teach him how to be an aggressive player — hitting harder, going to the net more often, taking the ball sooner, playing more inside the court than outside, taking time away from his opponent and finishing points sooner instead of rallying 25 or 30 times. He wants to complete the point sooner so he doesn't get too tired."
Emon van Loben Sels, right, and close friend Mitchell Lee shake
hands after the final in Mobile, Ala. Photo courtesy of Emon van
Loben Sels
   Van Loben Sels' biggest asset, according to Harbatsiuk, is his passion for tennis.
   "He is really passionate," Harbatsiuk said. "He remembers the scores of all of his matches, even tournaments he played five or seven years ago. He remembers the critical points, what he did wrong. He is very passionate about tennis — that's his biggest advantage. He really wants to improve his game and does whatever it takes.
   "He remembers not just his matches but (those of) his opponents and other people. He is very into it, and that's why he's becoming really successful."
   Harbatsiuk added that van Loben Sels, 5-foot-10 (1.78 meters) and 145 pounds (65.8 kilograms) with a Japanese mother and American father, "needs to get stronger physically. He's still growing up. In terms of technical things, he needs to work on his serve to make it really consistent and aggressive. And just polish other shots like forehands and backhands and move to the net faster.
   "He needs to stay healthy, injury-free. It's going to help him play longer matches and be ready for college and then pro. The biggest goal is to stay healthy and get stronger physically."
   A right-hander with a two-handed backhand, van Loben Sels idolizes Rafael Nadal.
   "He's the biggest fighter on court," van Loben Sels explained. "He never gives up. He's out there to win every point, and he has a great game style. No free points, corner to corner."
   Van Loben Sels' next tournament is the prestigious Easter Bowl, March 29-April 4 in San Diego.
   "My record there has not been the best," van Loben Sels admitted, "but now I'm playing pretty well, so I hope I can do better this year."

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