Local tennis players honored
By Kevin Eckleberry
LAGRANGE – It’s more than just a place for them to come and knock the tennis ball around.
For years, McCluskey Tennis Center has been like a “second home” in the words of Alan Valdez, and Blade Kendall and Jae Ryu feel the same way.
On Saturday, those three men were at the tennis center for the Cornett Classic, a tournament named in honor of Joe Cornett, who was a vital and active member of the local tennis community until his death in 2012.
Since the first tournament in 2013, Cornett scholarships have been given to two local tennis players, and during a break in the action on Saturday, a ceremony was held to recognize this year’s recipients, Valdez and Ryu.
The Top Dog Award was handed out for the first time, and that scholarship went to Kendall, whose LaGrange Grangers are playing in the state quarterfinals today.
All three scholarship recipients were introduced and received a warm greeting by the dozens of tennis patrons in attendance for this year’s tournament than ran from Friday to Sunday.
Valdez has been coming to the tennis center for more than 10 years, and he learned the sport participating in the Hot Shots youth clinic led by Bill Champion, the head professional at the facility.
Over the years, Valdez has developed into an elite player, and he and his brother Carlos Valdez are going to attend LaGrange College and play tennis.
“I’ve known him snice he was about the height of the net, and now I look up to him and ask him how the weather is,” Champion said. “He’s an outstanding young man, and a really good tennis player.”
Valdez, who is home-schooled, said the tennis center and the people associated with it have meant a great deal to him over the years.
“It’s an amazing experience to have all of these people here I’ve known since I was 7-years-old,” Valdez said. “You’re going to college, and they’ve helped you do that. It’s just wonderful.”
Valdez learned how to play the sport at McCluskey Tennis Center, and he has spent countless hours each week at the facility striving to improve and become the best player he could be.
“This has pretty much been my second home for years,” he said. “When I was younger, I thought I would just sleep upstairs and spend the night. I just try to come here any spare time I have.”
Soon, Valdez will be taking on a new challenge as he becomes a college-tennis player, and he and his brother will play for coach Matt Donnett at LaGrange College.
“I can’t wait for that,” Valdez said.
Like Valdez, the tennis center and the people there mean a great deal to Ryu, a senior at Callaway High who’ll be attending Auburn University.
“This is the first place I started to play tennis,” Ryu said. “That court right there, I was taking lessons there when I started. I love it here. I have a lot of memories, and I can never forget this place. The people, they’re so nice. Back then, I wasn’t really good at English, so they helped me. I really like the people here.”
Ryu was the Cavaliers’ number-one singles player last season, and he helped the team finish second in Region 5-AA.
In the first round of the state tournament against Coosa, Ryu gave the Cavaliers their only win.
Kendall is more of a late-bloomer when it comes to tennis.
He began playing competitively when he was a freshman, and by his sophomore season he was a member of the lineup as a doubles player.
For the past two seasons, Kendall has been the Grangers’ number one singles player.
While Kendall hasn’t spent as much time at the tennis center as Ryu and Valdez, he’s been making up for lost time during his high-school years.
The scholarship Kendall received was created by Joey Keeth and Paula Keeth.
“I think it’s great,” Kendall said. “These people are pretty much like a second family.”
On Saturday, Kendall was introduced by Donna Garrett, a former physical-education teacher of his.
“Donna, she used to teach me PE at Westside,” Kendall said. “I’ve known her forever. She’s always been a big believer, a big driving force since I began playing tennis.”
This afternoon at Woodward Academy, Kendall will be in his usual spot at number one singles as LaGrange looks to advance to the final four of the Class AAAA state tournament.
“It’s really fun, never having to worry about is this guy going to be good or not,” Kendall said. “I know they’re always going to be good. It’s always going to be a fun watch. It’s a lot more fun having that challenge.”