On the green clay tennis courts of Chartwell Country Club in Severna Park during a Wednesday afternoon in early August, Patrick Daciek is bursting with energy, ready for a challenge.
The Severna Park graduate is about to play in the quarterfinals of the Chartwell Classic, his leadup event to this week's U.S. Open National Playoffs, a tournament pitting the 13 United States Tennis Assocation regional champions against each other in New Haven, Conn., with a spot in the U.S. Open qualifying rounds on the line.
All the work Daciek (pronounced DAY-cee-ick), the Mid-Atlantic champion, has put in over the past two months will culminate this week, and his match at Chartwell against Alex Sidney is one of his final tune-ups before traveling to Connecticut.
The expectation from his camp heading into this Aug. 7 contest is that he is nearing peak health and performance, just in time for his most important tournament yet.
"If my level is there, I'll get the results," Daciek says.
He starts by returning Sidney's serve, hopping in anticipation of the bout. Daciek, 23, pounces on shots and sprints and slides across the court, nearly impossible to pass early on.
He wins six of his first seven points on return and breaks Sidney twice, racing to a 4-1 lead.
But then, something goes wrong. He starts feeling weak, even a little dizzy, and the first set tightens up at 5-4.
At 40-30 in the following game, Daciek, the tournament's No. 3 seed, battles through and wins the point, taking the set, 6-4. His opponent throws his racket in frustration.
Learning the game
Between his time on the court and in the classroom as a teenager, Daciek always preferred playing tennis. As he says, "Tennis was a family affair."
His father, Michael, taught him how to play at the age of 4. His sister, Allison, was his first hitting partner. And when he began training at the Tennis Center at College Park, his mother, Kathleen, would drive him there every day.
In high school, he would train on the court for three hours every day, followed by an hour-and-a-half of conditioning. Before he left for school in the mornings, he would exercise on a stationary bike.
"My whole life revolved around it," Daciek said. "I started really loving it when I was around 14, and it ended up being great."
Through the years, as he became more passionate about tennis, the results began to show. When he was in the 16-and-under age group, he was ranked No. 2 in the Mid-Atlantic. At the under-18 mark, he was No. 1 in the region.
Some of his singles and doubles wins were over opponents such as Milos Raonic, now the world's No. 13 player, Chase Buchanan, a top 400 player, and Ryan Lipman, who was ranked top 10 in the country as a junior.
"There are some kids who burn out and aren't even playing tennis by the time they are 16," Michael Daciek said. "We kind of took [Patrick] along, having fun, and then, if you really have a passion for it, then you pursue it."
As his results on the court improved, colleges began to take notice. For Daciek, though, two schools stood out: Maryland, where he trained, and Virginia Tech.
When he was younger, his father, a Virginia Tech graduate, would take him to Blacksburg on weekends to watch football games at Lane Stadium. He grew up loving the Hokies.
So, when coach Jim Thompson caught wind of Daciek's success on the junior circuit, he knew Daciek could prove to be a valuable asset on the team. He offered Daciek a spot on the Hokies' roster, and months later, Daciek would don the maroon and orange.
"He's extremely athletic and he's extremely competitive, and when you get those two together, you get a really good tennis player," Thompson said. "He was one of the best players in the country. It was great, especially for us."
In his college career, Daciek would go on to have a record of 69-55 in singles matches and 52-54 in doubles matches. He found himself playing at the No. 2 and No. 3 singles positions.
He rarely would play at the top singles spot, though, often having his successes stunted by injuries. By the time he graduated from Virginia Tech in spring 2012, he had no guarantee of what would come next.
"I love tennis, and I dedicated most of my life to it," Daciek said. "I didn't really know anything else other than the sport."
Daciek begins his second set at Chartwell talking to himself. It's not a good start.
"Wow," he says, after an errant hit. It is followed by an, "Oh, my god," and an eventual, "God, where is that shot?"
He starts to struggle on his serve, while Sidney — a McDonogh graduate — is easing through his own. In the fifth game of the set, down 3-1, a frustrated Daciek slaps a forehand out of bounds. "That's not even close, man," Daciek screams. "Come on!" The next two games, he is broken on serve, and Sidney holds at love.
He loses the second, 6-1, and the match goes to a third and final set.
Daciek didn't want his graduation from Virginia Tech to mark the end of his tennis career.
After he put so much effort into the sport, he didn't want to give up. He also wanted to pursue his dream of a professional career.
With the help of his parents, he has been able to do just that.
"As a parent, when your child has a passion for something, you try and get out of their way and help them where you can," said Michael Daciek, who has helped pay for Patrick's tennis expenses. "If he follows his dream, he can see how far that goes, and if he keeps progressing and he puts the time in, I'll do whatever I can to help him out from that standpoint."
"You never really know until you give it a shot," Patrick Daciek added. "I'm lucky enough to have my dad supporting me so that I can just focus on tennis."
After graduating, Daciek traveled to Peru to play in two tournaments on red clay. He has since traversed the United States playing professional tennis, garnering a world ranking of No. 1,429.
At the USTA Mid-Atlantic Sectional Qualifying tournament in June, he breezed his way to a 6-4, 6-3 win in the title match to qualify for the U.S. Open National Playoff.
Even after his time in Connecticut — and potentially New York City — Daciek has planned to play tournaments in Canada, Alabama and Florida.
Why not, while he's still young?
"This is really a dream come true, and I hope I can make the most of it," Daciek said. "I really want to travel the world playing. I just want my game to come around and be able to win."
Two hours after his bout with Sidney starts, Daciek plans to serve at 2-2 in the third set. But as he gets to the service line, he starts to fade. He is exhausted, his stomach in pain and his head light.
He knows something is wrong. He is in the best shape of his life, and his conditioning wouldn't suggest that he's bound to get tired early.
But he is unable to produce any power on his serves. Sidney crushes each return, and Daciek unable to respond. Broken at love, Daciek returns to his chair and covers his head with a towel. He retires from the match.
"I'm not that out of shape, so it has to be something that's affecting me," Daciek said. "I mean, everything was blurry by the third set. It's just frustrating that I have to be concerned about my health right now."
Daciek is unsure if he will be able to play in New Haven this week. He and his father traveled to Blacksburg two days after the match to visit doctors, and they are awaiting test results.
Doctors believe Daciek has a gallbladder issue that is unrelated to physical health, but it is one that could leave him sidelined.
If it doesn't work out this week, though, Daciek knows there will be another battle in the future. Despite the uncertainty that looms, he will always have the chance to succeed.
"Tennis isn't a one-tournament, end-all, be-all thing," Daciek said. "Everything is a challenge you need to work toward. If my level is there, I will get the results eventually."
U.S. Open National Playoff
Friday to Monday, Aug. 19
Connecticut Tennis Center at Yale
New Haven, Conn.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun