By Matt Hill
Arguably the greatest tennis player to ever come through Elizabethton High School has a deep interest in this week’s French Open, especially considering he has a connection to one of the event’s biggest stories.
Brandon Pike has watched closely the last couple of weeks the progress of Nashville’s Brian Baker, who first made the finals of Nice last week and made a splash in the French Open.
Baker won his first round match over Xavier Malisse at the world’s biggest clay court tournament before losing in five sets to No. 11 seed Gilles Simon on Wednesday.
Pike and Baker know each other very well. They used to battle it out on the USTA Junior circuit during the summers. Baker was four years younger than Pike, but Baker played up into Pike’s age group and the two had some battles.
Pike never defeated Baker, but they had good matches. Pike, a Class AAA state finalist in 1999, knew from the start how good Baker was going to be. It took five surgeries and about seven years out of the game, but now Baker is fulfilling his full potential.
“I think he’s having a tremendous run,” Pike said, who now is a U.S.T.A. teaching pro in the Orlando, Fla. metro area. He won the Tennessee state closed when he was eight in the 12-under. He was great back then. I played him six times and never beat him.”
Pike defeated Brian’s brother Art in the Class AAA singles semifinals the year he reached the championship round, but he said Brian’s family groomed him to be a professional tennis player.
“He had the resources.” Pike said. “He was homeschooled and there were tennis courts in his backyard.”
The wins Baker had in Nice really caught Pike’s eye, and showed him that after all the adversity he had to go through for seven years he was finally living up to the potential that he had been struggling to fulfill.
“He beat Gael Monfis, he beat Nikolay Davydenko and he had his chances against Nicholas Almagro, who is probably one of the best clay court players in the world outside of Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer,” Pike said. “He’s playing very well right now.”
Pike had no doubt as a youngster that Baker would make a splash in the pros.
“I knew if any of us were going to make it, it was going to be him,” Pike said. “He was four years younger than us, and playing at such a high level. I was 16 and he beat me when he was 12 in three sets. When he’s healthy, he can play with anybody.
What’s sort of unusual about Baker’s success is he’s having it on red clay, a surface where most Americans look like novice players.
It will be interesting to see if this great run continues on the lawns of the All-England Club at Wimbledon. Pike thinks if Baker can do this on clay, his game will translate to the faster surfaces.
“I would think he could play on all surfaces,” Pike said. “The way he uses his hands is tremendous. He’ll be tough.”
Some of the best players who have ever come through this state played in Northeast Tennessee during the late 1990s. Just in Northeast Tennessee, you had players such as Science Hill’s Mark Hossler, Sullivan South’s Matt Spencer and Dobyns- Bennett’s David Poole, who made the District 1-AAA tournament like a good college match.
Just like Pike, Poole became a teaching professional who is now at Glenrochie Country Club in Abingdon, Va. He actually did defeat Baker twice.
With a break here or there, Pike or Poole especially might be in the same situation Baker is today, and we would be watching them in Paris. Pike feels if that was really what he wanted as a child, he might have been able to do it.
“It kind of bums me out thinking about it,” Pike said. “I never really thought as a kid about wanting to be a professional tennis player. I would trade my life to be a professional tennis player.”
WALLINGFORD STILL ACTIVE IN TENNIS
Pike’s teammate at EHS, Sara Wallingford, was a very solid player in her own right — and she is still playing and making contributions in local tennis.
Wallingford played in the Friendship Ford Open this past week at the Bristol Racquet Club, but more importantly, she has helped lead the Dobyns-Bennett girls tennis team to a state runner-up finish in the Class AAA state tournament.
Wallingford is the girls coach and she teaches at the Kingsport school.
Wallingford, who played for Milligan College after graduating from Elizabethton, is probably best known for her 1999 upset of Sullivan South’s Myra O’ Dell in the second round of the District 1-AAA tournament. O’Dell and Wallingford later became teammates at Milligan.
On Wednesday, the tables were turned on Wallingford as she played doubles with Jamie Terranera against young Gate City teenagers Rosa and Emily Smith.
Wallingford and Terranera won 6-1, 7-5, but now the 2000 EHS graduate was no longer that 16-year old in the spotlight, but instead a mature adult being a role model to young girls in the area.
“I was thinking I hope I don’t get beat by the two kids,” Wallingford said. “I remember what it is like to go out and play, and it’s funny I’m on the other side of the net now I guess. I used to be the high school kid playing the adults in the tournament and I would go out thinking, ‘I’m going to beat the adults,’ and now I’m thinking, ‘I want to beat the kids.’ It is kind of interesting.”
Wallingford and Terranera had to fight off a stiff challenge from the two talented youngsters, but ended up pulling through in a match that had some very good rallies.
“Jamie is an awesome partner,” Wallingford said.
Tennis has become a way of life for Wallingford. She followed her father, Milligan College head golf coach Tony Wallingford, into coaching and has continued to be a good player on the local scene.
Wallingford plays the 4.0 division of singles and doubles.
“I love playing tennis, and I have played seriously since I was about 13,” she said. “I had a great time at Elizabethton, I learned so much, and had a great high school career there — and then I played at Milligan for four years and had a good career. And then I never thought I would be coaching at Dobyns-Bennett, but that’s what I’m doing.
“I’m playing local USTA and my team is headed to the state tournament in a couple of weeks, so I’m still playing competitively in that sense and I enjoy it and I try to teach my girls to enjoy it, too.”
Dobyns-Bennett is a Class AAA school, something Wallingford can relate to because she played at one herself.
When Wallingford, Pike and former EHS No. 1 seed and ETSU Lady Buc Heather Jones played, EHS was a Class AAA school and conference matches included D-B, Science Hill and Tennessee High instead of Johnson County and other rural schools.
What Wallingford and Jones might have accomplished in Class AA will always remain unknown, but Wallingford looks back on her high school days with no regrets.
“We were in the same league as Science Hill, Dobyns-Bennett and Tennessee High, and they’re not in that group anymore,” Wallingford said. “When Heather and I played we were really up against the top kids in the state. That was always good. We played with a lot of those kids at clinics and on weekends and we could get in there and play with them.
“The kids at Elizabethton now are very good, they have a good team. They just don’t have as competitive matches because of who they have in their league. I know they have a big rivalry with Unicoi, and that’s always a good match and they fare well to go to the regions and play the kids from Knoxville. They do well, but we had the big guys. I remember playing Dobyns- Bennett, now I’m wearing maroon and gray.”
Wallingford, who has a very devout Christian faith, feels very blessed to be able to get up everyday and be able to play the game she has loved since she was a kid.
“I’m really thankful to have the opportunity to have good health and have a chance to play a sport and be able to give back and work with the girls at Dobyns-Bennett and to do community lessons and play in local leagues,” she said. “It’s something I really enjoy and tennis is a sport you can play for many years. I have a lot of tennis to go because I am definitely not burned out. I’m grateful that I can continue on and play.”
FRIENDSHIP FORD OPEN A SUCCESS; FOOD COUNTRY OPEN NEXT AT BRC
The Friendship Automotive group sponsored this past week’s tournament at the Bristol Racquet Club, and it was a great success.
Carter County entrants were light, but there were several players from Virginia gearing up for next week’s high school state tournament, and Sullivan East brought almost its entire girls team to Friendship Open.
According to club pro Todd Smith, the event being held when it was probably allowed a good turnout of high school kids.
“We had quite a few high school players, and it was good for Gate City to get some play in before they head up to Radford next week,” Smith said.
Next up is the Food Country Open starting on June 26 at the Racquet Club. It needs to be pointed out that there were only three players in the Men’s 3.0 division, but that you don’t have to be a great player to play.
One person in the 3.0 group was playing his first tournament since he was a college student 12 years ago, and actually had a set point in his match.
Smith says he would like to see as many people as possible play.
“They don’t have to be great players, just come out and enjoy it,” Smith said.
Matt Hill is the golf and tennis columnist for the Elizabethton Star. You can reach him by email at email@example.com