The tennis courts at The Suburban Club in Pikesville are typically empty during weekday afternoons, with many of the usual patrons busy at work until they can head to the country club for some exercise.
It was in this solitude, on a partly cloudy Monday earlier this month, that Xander Centenari slogged through a practice match, striking balls with a powerful forehand stroke when he saw an opportunity to win a point.
Unlike other club members, Centenari doesn't have to budget time between work and tennis. This is his job, and he grinds through intense training sessions like these in hopes of reaching the country's biggest tennis tournament.
After winning the U.S. Open National Playoffs Mid-Atlantic singles title June 3, the 24-year-old from Towson is still in the hunt for a U.S. Open qualifying berth. He will be one of 16 low-level professionals competing in the National Playoff Championship in New Haven, Conn., starting Aug. 15, as he looks to continue his run toward a Grand Slam event.
"Gunning for that tournament in August gives you really something to work for, something to shoot for," Centenari said. "Just the prospect of being able to potentially play at the U.S. Open is a pretty cool idea, too. So I'll be pushing pretty hard for it."
After graduating from Dartmouth last year, Centenari played in the New England Sectional Qualifying Tournament but lost in the semifinals. In this month's Mid-Atlantic tournament he fought off a match point in the final as he completed a comeback victory and championship in the 85-player field.
The winner of the National Playoff Championship earns a wild-card entry into the U.S. Open Qualifying Tournament on Aug. 19 in Flushing, N.Y., where 128 players from around the world will vie for the last 16 spots in the major. Centenari still has a long way to go, but just getting this far, to Centenari, is an accomplishment.
"A tournament like that definitely helps my confidence," he said. "But I try not to think too far ahead, and just try to keep on working on the things in my game that I know I need to work on and just keep improving."
Growing up in Baltimore County, Centenari wasn't fully committed to tennis. He also swam and played lacrosse. By his freshman year at McDonogh, however, Centenari had focused solely on tennis, the sport he started playing when he was 3 years old.
Centenari's old Randallstown home had a tennis court in the backyard, and when his father, Peter, decided to pick up the sport, the young Xander joined him.
"As Xander learned the game and how to play, I learned along with him," said Peter Centenari, who moved with his family from Randallstown when Xander was 8. "He, obviously, was much younger. He picked things up much more quickly."
It was during those early days, Xander Centenari said, that "something sparked." Despite playing other sports as a kid, he always loved tennis most. By the time Xander Centenari turned 13, Peter Centenari couldn't win a game against him.
Xander Centenari had had professional aspirations since he was a high school standout, but he always had kept himself from thinking too far ahead. After his first year at Dartmouth, it became clearer to him that he wanted to pursue tennis as a career. He lightened his academic workload, switching from a pre-med track to a psychology major. Centenari earned All-Ivy League honors in singles once and doubles twice before going pro last September.
Now he closely studies the world's best. Centenari loves watching Roger Federer play, and has the same one-handed backhand. But he admires Rafael Nadal's work ethic, and it shows in the way he talks to his coach, Ross Coleman, about Nadal's training habits and playing style.
His attention to detail and desire to learn, Coleman said, are what separate Centenari from other players he coaches.
"A lot of players are competitors, and they like the rush of the competition, but he seems to get more out of it than just that," said Coleman, Centenari's coach since he graduated from Dartmouth. "It's like a surfer who really enjoys the wave. There's nobody he's competing against; it's just himself."
Since going pro, Centenari has traveled to France, Greece, Belgium, Israel and throughout the United States to compete in tournaments. The worldwide travel is one of the perks, he said, of being a professional, but whether he is playing overseas or sharpening his skills at his local country club, Centenari's main focus is on getting better.
His upcoming appearance in the National Playoff Championship is proof of that improvement. With a spot in the U.S. Open within reach, Centenari still thinks he has a lot to work on. But having gotten this far is enough of a sign that he may have a brighter future.
"My real focus is to just really keep improving as best as I can," Centenari said. "I feel like I've improved a lot every year that I've been playing, and I'm not really sure where my top level is. But I feel like I'm definitely not there yet."