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Chuck McGill: The passion for tennis is high, but where are the players?

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — By the time I made my way up the steps of the Tennis Indoor Center for Saturday’s state tennis tournament championship matches, the second level was so packed with spectators there was barely room to move. The best I could do was crouch in a corner and watch, view partially obstructed, the pair of No. 1 boys singles matches.

My knees ached, but it was refreshing to this lifelong tennis player — passion for the sport hasn’t waned.

But has there been a decline in the quality of play? Local coaches seem to think so. The numbers back them up.

“It’s been going downhill for a long, long time,” said Chris Luckett, who coached the George Washington boys team to a state title this weekend. “You only find a couple good players here and there around the state. It’s tough to build tennis in this area because it’s a very pricey sport; it takes a lot of commitment from the players and parents to out there and get lessons and play in tournaments.”

The Charleston area has seen a precipitous drop in state tournament qualifiers. This season, Kanawha and Putnam counties combined to send 31 positions to the three-day state tournament. George Washington was responsible for 14, Charleston Catholic 10, Hurricane four, Capital one, Nitro one and Riverside one. Last year, Kanawha Valley schools occupied 40 spots at states.

Fifteen years ago, the two counties had 56 state tournament qualifiers. It wasn’t just the stalwarts GW and Charleston Catholic, either.

In 1999, DuPont’s boys and girls combined for six spots at states. Winfield, which had Luckett at No. 2 singles and No. 1 doubles, also qualified six. St. Albans had five, Nitro four, Hurricane three, Poca one and South Charleston one. The Patriots and Irish had the talent and depth, as per usual, but the non-traditional powers could push the top-tier teams and provide competition.

That made players on both sides of the net better.

“There were teams in our region that didn’t even have a team this year,” Charleston Catholic boys coach David Sadd said. “I think it’s down all over the state. Everything goes in cycles, but I think it’s down all over the state.”

Huntington’s Cassie Mercer, who is signed to play tennis at the University of Virginia, won her fourth consecutive Class AAA state championship at No. 1 singles. She’s clearly one of the top college-bound players, but high school tennis has been a breeze. She won Saturday’s final in straight sets, 6-0, 6-0, over Morgantown’s Abby Rosiello. Mercer won 40 out of 41 singles games in three days of the state tournament.

Mercer’s counterpart on the boys side, Hunter Tubert, had a similarly easy time for the Highlanders. He beat GW’s Ryan Massinople, 6-1, 6-0, to capture his third consecutive Class AAA state title at No. 1 singles. He hasn’t lost in his prep career and it looks like he’ll be unchallenged if he chooses to play for his school again next season. Tubert won 40 out of 43 games in four singles matches this weekend.

The down year in the Charleston area opened the door for new team champions. Charleston Catholic’s eight-year run of boys titles came to an end as Williamstown won its first state championship since 1995. Parkersburg Catholic unseated Charleston Catholic on the girls side for its first team title since 1999. Charleston Catholic had won six in a row.

Huntington’s girls captured its fourth straight team title, making it seven years since a Charleston girls team has won it all in AAA.

“A lot of kids have talent, but they get bored out there because the level of competition is so low,” Luckett said. “I don’t know how you build from that. You have to take lessons and you have to take clinics. If you don’t pick up a racquet all summer and don’t play until the next spring, you’re not going to get better.

“People are playing traveling soccer, lacrosse is getting big. Tennis isn’t something kids are picking up from the beginning.”

The hope here is that the trend reverses. Saturday mornings at the state tournament should be about three-set thrillers, not straight-set sweeps.


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