By Glenn Graham, The Baltimore Sun
10:47 AM EDT, July 11, 2011
Say those two words to McDonogh's recently graduated tennis standout Alex Sidney and his eyes light up and a smile quickly takes over the rest of his face.
The two words answer many questions.
Why do you train almost every summer day from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., making a point to show up at the Suburban Club an hour early a couple times a week to put in extra work on your serve?
Why do you relentlessly chase every drop shot an opponent sends your way, no matter the score?
What is your favorite moment on the tennis court?
"Match point," Sidney says. "It's the most intense moment. You have to be 100 percent dialed in, and all of your energy has to be completely focused."
Since he was 5 years old — when he first started playing tennis because he "just loved smacking the ball around" — Sidney has been passionately attached to the sport.
Now 18, he smacks the ball around like few players his age in the country.
Rated a five-star recruit by Tennis Recruiting Network and ranked the top high school boys player in the state, Sidney is set to play for Ivy League champion Cornell after a stellar career at McDonogh and a steady climb up the USTA junior rankings.
He went 117-3 in high school, capturing three Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association singles titles and capping his career with a 34-0 senior season. Last summer, he enjoyed a breakthrough in the USTA junior circuit, reaching No. 1 in the Mid-Atlantic section and No. 16 nationally.
"Alex's No. 1 strength is his perseverance," says Ross Coleman, his personal coach and founder of the Hawk Eye Tennis Program. "He will find a way to win, and it doesn't matter if he has to throw the racket over the net to do it. In a nutshell, he's just like Rocky. He thinks, 'I'll stay out there, I'll figure it out, and if you knock me down, I'm going to keep coming back and you have to beat me physically and mentally to go home with a victory.'"
Sidney's dominating forehand — considered one of the finest in the nation among his age group — is his knockout punch.
Heavy and with tricky top spin, it enables him to control some points and get back into others.
"Spin is one thing, but having the ball actually look like a different shape when it comes at you — that's a whole different thing," Coleman says. "That his ball has that kind of shape to it where not only can he hit it big, but he can hit it just about anywhere on the court. It's pro quality."
A smile quickly emerges on Sidney's face when he talks about his forehand. Often when he's moving forward, he leaves the ground for added pop and a little more spin. The shot whizzes past an opponent, and Sidney gets an added boost of adrenaline.
"It's like the best feeling ever," he says. "You just feel so much tension there with the ball meeting the strings. It's all loaded up and then finally bazookas off the strings. There's nothing really like it, just amazing."
Sidney came to Coleman seven years ago with plenty of talent, but he was unrefined physically and mentally.
But in everything he does, Sidney has to win, and his eagerness to work led to improvement his game.
"There have been plenty of bruises, and sometimes we've had to bang our heads and go back to the drawing board, but after all these years, he's become more and more polished and has matured as an athlete and a person," Coleman says. "All the parts have come together, and he's blossomed into a national-caliber player."
Sidney identifies one match last summer as his quantum leap. Competing at the USTA boys' 18s national championships in Kalamazoo, Mich., he lost the first set of his third-round match, 6-2, and trailed 5-2, 0-30 in the second, two points from elimination.
All five coaches from the colleges where he made his official visits were watching, along with countless others on center court.
"I just literally took every ounce of drive I had, and I pushed through and stayed focused on each point one at a time," Sidney says. "I just told myself, 'Don't miss and grind it out.' I was able to get it back to 5-5, and [my opponent] got flustered."
Sidney won the second set, 7-5, and took charge in the third, winning, 6-3, to claim the match.
He took away much more than the victory that day.
"I didn't know I could handle pressure that well," Sidney says. "That I could handle that, it gives me confidence for down the road. If I'm ever in a situation like that again, I know from experience that I've come through before. It was a huge breakthrough for me."
Sidney is banking on more breakthroughs.
This summer, along with the juniors circuit, he's competing in International Tennis Federation Futures tournaments to challenge himself against more experienced players.
After making his mark as the most successful boys player in McDonogh's program, Sidney wants to make the same impact at Cornell.
"There was nothing at Cornell I didn't love," says Sidney, who also considered Harvard, Dartmouth, Notre Dame and Columbia. "My visits were amazing. The campus was great, the coach [Tony Bresky] is a big reason why I looked there, the team was amazing, the academics, the food … just everything was great."
Bresky, who comes to Cornell this year after eight years as an assistant at Virginia, has brought in a recruiting class ranked fourth nationally by Tennis Recruiting Network. And he's glad Sidney is a part of it.
"Alex is a great competitor," Bresky says. "He's really fast and skilled and has a great heart and mind for the game. We're definitely looking for kids who are hard working and passionate about playing tennis and wanting to improve. At Cornell, we're trying to build a top national level program, and I think Alex fits into that."
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