Few players in Howard County harness the tennis talent Stephen Alam has showed the last four years. A tall, strong player that features a booming, powerful serve, Alam had all the physical tools to dominate the league and beyond.
Alam showed flashes as a freshman as part of a county title-winning boys doubles team. His sophomore season he placed third at the county and regional tournaments in singles. Last spring, Alam once again won double-digit matches in the regular season but lost in the county final in singles. A loss to Hammond’s Origen Grear, who Alam beat just days prior, in the region semifinal cost him a trip to the state tournament.
It took Alam nearly three years to figure out why he always seemed to come up just short in the big moments. As physically imposing he was, he lacked the mental fortitude and failed to put in the proper time and effort to prepare for each match or tournament. It cost him medals he felt he should’ve won.
“I didn’t prepare like I used to. I always should’ve won the match but there was always something stopping me,” Alam said. “I think it was how I prepared for matches. I should’ve practiced more before them, I should’ve taken them a bit more seriously.”
Entering his senior season, Alam was determined not to make the same mistakes again. He still had as much fun as anyone at practices, Mustangs coach Scott Dingman said, but he altered just about everything else. The most important change, however, came before each time he stepped onto the court and in his mind.
“I kind of looked back on everything and I was like, look, this is my last year and I need to make some changes because it would’ve been sad if it ended like it did every other year,” said Alam, who is this year’s Howard County Times/Columbia Flier boys tennis Player of the Year. “I think it must’ve been before the month or two before the regular season ended. I thought I don’t know what I’m going to do yet but whatever I do I need to make sure that I prepare for it.”
It wasn’t just a renewed focus and spending more time preparing. Dingman said Alam “has all those shots in his bag” and can “put the ball wherever you want.” What he didn’t have, however, was a switch to turn off the power and turn on the finesse. Until this year.
“I think that is something that had really changed in him from freshman year to senior year. This year he was really adapting more,” Dingman said. “... Him being able to be a little bit more patient this year and just kind of wait for opportunities to present themselves, where he would have some easier winners as opposed to trying to force winners from the get-go with power.
“From a strategic standpoint, he’s always had the shots but he’s just gotten a little bit smarter and a little more mature in his game and to be a little more patient. It was one of those things where he had always been told and always kind of knew in the back of his mind, but that other side of you comes out like, ‘I’ve got this huge forehand and this huge serve and I’m just going to crush it.’”
With renewed focus and proper alterations made to his game, Alam dominated this spring. He went 3-0 playing No. 1 doubles and was even better in No. 1 singles with a perfect 10-0 record in the regular season. Only after he defeated Grear rather easily, 8-3, late in the regular season did Alam realize how effective his new style of play had become.
Both he and Dingman knew Alam had a chance to win a state title in singles, but the team decided his best pairing would be with Veronica Cuellar in mixed doubles. He and Cuellar, a three-time Howard County girls Player of the Year who has state championship-experience, made a perfect match.
The duo won all nine matches it played in straight sets en route to sweeping the county, 2A South and 2A state tournaments. Together they won 108 games of the 136 they played their dominant playoff run but needed to overcome one final test of adversity in the state final against River Hill’s Kartik Gupta and Defne Demirekler. The Hawks turned a 4-1 deficit into a 6-5 lead in the first set, and Alam and Cuellar needed to hold serve to force a tiebreak.
Alam said in that moment he turned to something he hadn’t in the past: the game plan.
“At practices, when I was playing doubles, we really had to go over what the game plan was going to be, how we were going to play to people’s weaknesses, what we were going to do if we did face adversity, which we did and we played through all that perfectly,” he said. “If we hadn’t done all that at practice, we might not have won that state finals match.”
The Mustangs won that first set and rolled through the second to win the state championship. Their victory also helped the team win the first 2A state title. For Alam, the triumph pushed the shortcomings forever to the back of his mind.
“It was great. I can say I came up short all I want but it was great,” he said. “This was a great way to end it. My coaches were awesome; the players were amazing. I loved everything about it.”
Alam will continue his tennis career at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
Also named to the All-County team:
Revanth Bairi, Marriotts Ridge, junior
Bairi went 13-1 during the regular season — 8-0 in singles and 5-1 in doubles — and paired with Brandon Tseytlin to play boys doubles in the postseason. The duo was one of the best in the league, winning the county title as the No. 3 seed and then had no issues capturing the 2A South region title. At the state tournament, the Mustangs duo won in a tiebreak to reach the finals but lost in straight sets to a team from Easton.
Christopher Chen, Centennial, senior
Chen was a strong all-around player for the Eagles and went 6-1 in No. 2 singles and 5-0 in various doubles matches during the regular season. He paired with Olivia Tsai in mixed doubles and reached the finals of the county tournament with two straight set-victories, and at the 3A East regional tournament the duo finished second again. At the 3A state tournament, they lost the semifinal in a tiebreaker but bounced back to finish in third place.
Origen Grear, Hammond, junior
Grear was a Player of the Year candidate this spring after sweeping postseason titles playing No. 1 singles. As the top seed, Grear won all three matches in straight sets and beat Mt. Hebron’s Michael Kimack in the finals. He followed it up with a tiebreak victory in the 2A South regional final. At the state tournament, Grear raced to the finals, where he overcame a first-set loss to beat Queen Anne’s Hugh Meehan in a tiebreak for the state championship.
Kartik Gupta, River Hill, junior
For the second straight year, Gupta was one of the league’s best doubles players and transitioned to mixed doubles for the postseason. He went 9-1 in No. 1 doubles in the regular season and formed a strong mixed doubles team with freshman Defne Demirekler. They placed third at the county tournament and second at the region and state tournaments, falling only to Marriotts Ridge’s state champions Veronica Cuellar and Stephen Alam.
Danny Ho, Centennial, freshman
Paired with Ryan Huang for the entire season, Ho helped duo finish a strong regular season with a 12-1 record in No. 1 doubles before another strong showing in the postseason. They won a tiebreak to reach the county finals but fell to Marriotts Ridge, and at the 3A East region tournament they rebounded and cruised to the title. Their run continued at the state tournament, where the pair won the first two matches before losing to a Rockville team in the final.
Ryan Huang, Centennial, freshman
Paired with Danny Ho for the entire season, Huang helped duo finish a strong regular season with a 12-1 record in No. 1 doubles before another strong showing in the postseason. They won a tiebreak to reach the county finals but fell to Marriotts Ridge, and at the 3A East region tournament they rebounded and cruised to the title. Their run continued at the state tournament, where the pair won the first two matches before losing to a Rockville team in the final.
Michael Kimack, Mt. Hebron, senior
After winning a region title and reaching the state final in mixed doubles as a sophomore and winning the boys doubles county title last spring, Kimack tested himself in boys singles in the postseason. He reached the county final, where he lost to Hammond’s Origen Grear, but rebounded to win the 3A East region title easily. At the state tournament, Kimack won his first two matches before losing to Huntingtown’s Taiyo Tougas in the finals.
Brandon Tseytlin, Marriotts Ridge, senior
Tseytlin went 9-3 playing exclusively No. 1 doubles during the regular season before being paired with Revanth Bairi in the postseason. The duo was one of the best in the league, winning the county title as the No. 3 seed and then had no issues capturing the 2A South region title. At the state tournament, the Mustangs duo won in a tiebreak to reach the finals but lost in straight sets to a team from Easton.