They may be small, but for an elite Hawaii tennis foursome the USTA/Nike Summer Junior Sectionals were huge.
Zandrix Acob, Alyssa Tobita, McKenna Fujitani and Taylor Lau earned free tickets to Florida the last two days by winning the 14 and 12 age-group championships at the Patsy T. Mink CORP Tennis Complex in Waipahu.
Lau and Acob, who is ranked fourth nationally in Boys 14s, punched their tickets Saturday. Tobita and Fujitani needed nearly 2 hours yesterday to win the Girls 14 and Boys 12 titles, and also earn invitations to the Nike Junior Tour national qualifier at Evert Tennis Academy in Boca Raton in September.
National champs advance to the Nike Junior International Masters, at Club Med Columbus Isle in the Dominican Republic, in December. There are 28 countries participating in the Nike Junior Tour, representing more than 60,000 players. Former international participants include Rafael Nadal and Juan Martin del Potro.
Tobita went to nationals two years ago at Stanford, won one match, and has been working — and aching — to get back since.
"I didn’t do very well. I want to improve on that," said Tobita, who will be a freshman at Mililani High School in the fall. "All the people from the mainland think Hawaii is junk and no good people come from there, so they always talk down on Hawaii. I want to prove we’re not that bad."
Champions in Girls and Boys 16s and 18s were also crowned yesterday — minus the Nike incentive. Karlene Pang, Matthew Westmoreland, Julia Weisel and Kaito Mizutani earned titles.
Only Mizutani and Tobita won in straight sets yesterday, but Acob and Lau made it look easy Saturday, giving up just three games combined.
Acob, from Hilo, is the brightest star on a junior landscape that is suddenly stacked with good players, particularly in the 14s.
He won singles and doubles at last year’s Copper Bowl and captured the National Open this February. He has trained at the USTA Player Development Training Center in Florida and might be on the verge of a No. 1 national ranking.
Acob usually "plays up" in the 18s locally, which transforms his age division into a free-for-all. Mid-Pacific Institute coach Channon Alcon calls him "a developing pro" and compares him to Aiea’s Dennis Lajola, a former Junior Davis Cupper who will be a senior at the University of Hawaii in the fall.
"It’s his mind," Alcon said. "Even when he’s hitting winners he’s correcting himself. Nobody has had that kind of discipline since Dennis."
Lajola received an academy scholarship from Nick Bollettieri when he was 16, allowing him to "see what tennis is like on the national stage. The MPI coach says Acob "is beyond that already."
Sarah Dvorak, a Waiakea freshman, often "plays up" as well, but yesterday she could not overcome Tobita’s tenacity in a 7-6, 6-2 loss. Tobita lost the first three games and was down 3-5 in the opening set.
She took her first lead at 3-0 in the tiebreaker, slowing the pace and running down everything. That forced the more powerful Dvorak to hit multiple "winners" to take a point. She couldn’t cope, in an exceptionally well-played match.
"She was pounding the ball," Tobita said. "I couldn’t even touch half the balls she hit sometimes."
Tobita will also travel to Colorado and Arizona this summer. Fujitani will head to California and Arizona before Florida.
The top seed had to rally to beat third-seeded Sean Kondo, 5-7, 6-3, 6-2 in yesterday’s final. Fujitani, who is 4-foot-10, 75 pounds, had some 10 pounds on his fleet-footed opponent, and used his muscle to win the final three games of the second set and final four of the match.
"I played flat in the first set," Fujitani admitted. "Then I just tried to play with the wind and not worry about it. I tried not to think about the Nike trip either, just clear my mind and don’t think about anything."