Atholton senior Matt Sklar has a long list of tennis achievements. A regional doubles champion as a freshman, he went on to win three county and regional titles and place in the top four at the state tournament twice as one of the most dominating singles players in not just Howard County, but the state.
He's faced countless foes, including Hammond's Jonathan Gorel, Centennial's Ram Kotnana and Marriotts Ridge's Cade Buch, who all tried and failed to knock Sklar off his throne as best in the league by year's end.
Prior to all of his success, though, Sklar was a five-year-old kid who picked up a tennis racquet for the first time because, "I was extremely tiny and tennis is a non-contact sport," he said. "That's 100 percent true. I can't take a hit."
Around the age of 10, he started playing United States Tennis Association tournaments in College Park, which he did for the next three years. But Sklar admitted that during that time he started to lose the love and commitment to the sport. So he quit.
"When I was younger and I was playing in tournaments, I loved it a lot," said Sklar, the Howard County Times/Columbia Flier boys tennis Player of the Year for a third straight year. "But I also hated it."
Sklar never played another USTA tournament and took six months off before the start of his first high school season. It was during those weeks he learned that he didn't miss the battles; he simply missed the sport.
"Once I took the time off and I came back, I got to really appreciate it. During those six months I was just so hungry to hit again. I missed it. I was rusty the first couple times and then I started feeling the ball and I was like, 'Oh man, where has this been?' Sklar said. "So I've definitely gotten to appreciate it — slow down and appreciate playing high school tennis. ... It has made me a generally happier person."
Sklar immediately became one of the top players in the county as a freshman with a newfound energy and mindset. He teamed up with George Mao in doubles and placed second at the county tournament to help Atholton win its second of three-straight County Cups. The pair avenged their defeat in the regional finals, and then went 1-1 at the state tournament.
Looking back on it, Sklar notes that his personality wouldn't be the same had he continued to play USTA tournaments. He found through high school play something he hadn't before — that for him tennis was simply about having fun.
"My mindset was way different from a lot of guys," said Sklar. "... My personality would be way different if I had never done this or if I played in tournaments like I had been when I was younger. There's no similarity whatsoever."
His success playing doubles as a freshman followed into his sophomore season as the No. 1 singles player for the Raiders. So did the team's success.
Sklar avenged his only regular-season loss that year to Buch in the county finals, where he led Atholton to another County Cup title. He beat Buch again in straight sets in the regional finals, and then made a quarterfinal run at the state tournament before falling to the eventual state champion.
With a newfound rival in Kotnana during his junior year, Sklar once again picked up his play and won tight county and regional final matches over him. This time he reached the state tournament semifinals, but once again lost to the eventual state champion — Severna Park's Alex Cauneac — before placing fourth behind Bel Air's Michael Quang.
Sklar said he looks back to his match in which he lost 12 of 13 games against Cauneac as the starting point for his dominating senior campaign.
"I always try to think about coming here (to the state tournament) and being able to keep up with these guys," he said. "A lot of time when I'm playing someone who is not too much of a challenge I'll think about how I might play against Alex Cauneac from last year and what would I want to do better."
In short, nobody ever seriously threatened Sklar until the state tournament this year. He was undefeated in county play, sometimes facing team's No. 3 or 4 singles player because opposing coaches knew their top player had little chance.
Sklar admitted that he would have liked to face tougher competition every week but said it never frustrated him.
"I never felt like it's a waste of time or anything," he said. "I've tried to make the most out of all the time I spent playing."
At the county tournament, Sklar won all four matches in straight sets and won 48 out of 52 games. He beat Gorel, 6-1, 6-0, in the finals for his third straight league title, and then captured his fourth straight regional crown by sweeping his way to the finals, where he beat Gorel again, 6-1, 6-1, for the championship.
Sklar said that his coach Michael Ashmead told him after the regional tournament to enjoy his accomplishments because few have done what he had. In a way, he feels he has left a legacy on Howard County tennis.
"My coach mentioned that to me earlier. Not a lot of people make it to states all four years. I'm definitely proud of that. As a freshman walking in I thought I was real nice. I can just take four state titles easy. My mentality changed when I lost in the quarters," he said.
"In county — I don't like to brag about stuff or act cocky and don't want to disrespect anybody or any of my opponents, but it feels good like having people know me when I show up. As a freshman, I was a good freshman, but now I have people gunning for me. It feels good and it's fun because people bring their best stuff against me. I'm that spot in people's minds."
At the state tournament, though, Sklar knew from experience that every opponent would be tough, and that he needed to stay as level-headed as possible in order to make a title run.
"I know from experience that once I get into the topsy-turvy emotional rollercoaster that I struggle to bring it back when I really need it," he said.
Unfortunately for Sklar, who was seeded second, he lost a tough match in the heat to Severna Park's Austin Yannone, 3-6, 5-7. The weather and a hard-fought opponent cost him again in the consolation finals against Urbana's Sam Safdari. Sklar lost, 6-7 (5-7), 4-6.
Losing his last two matches of the year wasn't what Sklar had in mind, but against Safdari he started to realize that was the last time wearing the Atholton logo on the hard courts.
"I sort of saw it coming a little bit. I was thinking about it while I was on the court; I probably shouldn't be," he said. "... I never really thought I would have this much of a good time playing through these four years. I came in as a tournament player not really thinking very highly of it, and it's been way more than I could ask for or ever expected. I'm looking ahead to having a similar experience in college, though. So that's what keeps me looking forward."
Sklar, who has a 4.77 weight GPA and ranks seventh in his class, will attend Johns Hopkins University in the fall, where he plans to study neuroscience. He also said he hopes to walk on to the tennis team.
"As far as tennis, Hopkins is vying for national championships. Whatever I can do — make the team, start, win a couple matches," Sklar said. "If I could play tennis that would be everything I can ask for."
Also named to the boys tennis all-county team:
Stephen Alam, Marriotts Ridge. A powerful freshman who was also on the varsity wrestling team, Alam helped lead the Mustangs to 13 wins in the regular season before teaming up with senior Cade Buch for the postseason. The pair won the boys doubles county tournament and then placed third at the regional tournament.
Rohil Bahri, Mt. Hebron. Bahri was a standout for a Vikings team that won 14 matches this spring. He teamed up with senior Tess Weber for the second time in three years, and together in the mixed doubles they won county and regional titles, and then finished third at the state tournament.
Cade Buch, Marriotts Ridge. After finishing third at the county and regional tournaments as a junior playing singles, Buch put together another strong season and helped the Mustangs win 14 matches. In the postseason, he partnered with freshman Stephen Alam to win the doubles county title before placing third at the regional tournament. He's on the all-county team for a third straight season.
Jonathan Gorel, Hammond. A strong singles player over the last few seasons, Gorel once again had a stellar season in singles. He improved upon his fourth-place finishes a year ago by placing second at the county and regional tournaments before falling in three-sets in the opening round of the state tournament.
Peter Ho, Centennial. Just a sophomore, Ho teamed up with senior Andrew Tsai for the postseason. The pair finished second to Marriotts Ridge's Cade Buch and Stephen Alam in the county tournament and then went on to place second at the regional tournament.
Michael Kimack, Mt. Hebron. One of a handful of talented freshman in the county, Kimack placed fourth at the county tournament in singles. He followed that up with a third-place finish at the regional tournament, as he avenged a county tournament loss to Centennial's William Liu.
William Liu, Centennial. Liu helped lead the Eagles to a 12-win regular season and fifth-place finish in the County Cup standings. He finished third in singles at the county tournament and then placed fourth at the regional tournament.
Reece Maiden, Glenelg. Part of one of the strongest doubles teams in the county, Maiden helped the Gladiators win 10 matches in the regular season. He partnered with junior Shawn Witschen to finish third at the county tournament, and then the pair knocked off the top seeded team to win the regional tournament.
Prateek Swamykumar, River Hill. An all-county selection for a third straight season, Swamykumar led the Hawks to the regular-season county title and 14 wins. He teamed up with freshman Anna Artasova in mixed doubles in the postseason, and the pair placed second at the county and regional tournaments before knocking off the top seed at the state tournament en route to a quarterfinal run.
Andrew Tsai, Centennial. Tsai, an all-county selection for the second year in a row, helped the Eagles win 12 matches this season. He teamed up with sophomore Peter Ho to finish second in doubles at the county and regional tournaments.
Shawn Witschen, Glenelg. Witschen helped the Gladiators win 10 matches in the regular season, and then placed third at the county tournament alongside junior Reece Maiden in doubles. The pair went on to win the regional tournament in three sets after falling behind 0-1.