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Middle-school ace

At 13, Belinda Niu is a force on the court
by: jim CLARK, Belinda Niu practices at the Academy at the University of Portland, where she trains with Aaron Gross.

Belinda Niu is a 4.0 student who plays classical music on the piano and is well-mannered, polished and articulate beyond her years.

But if you really want to be impressed, watch her hit a tennis ball.

Belinda, who turned 13 last Friday, is the latest tennis prodigy to come out of Oregon. The eighth-grader at West Sylvan Middle School won a pair of national 12-and-under tournaments this summer and last week finished fifth in the prestigious Nike Junior Masters at Stanford University, which featured 16 of the top 14-and-under girls in the country.

The only female from Oregon who has made it on the Women's Tennis Association tour is Samantha Reeves, 27, who lived in Portland until she was 14. Reeves reached the third round at Wimbledon in 2003 and played regularly on the circuit from 1998 to 2004.

'I would say (Reeves and Niu) are pretty comparable at the same stage,' says Aaron Gross, a longtime teaching pro and University of Portland men's coach who has worked with Niu the past two years. 'Girls like Belinda don't come along too often.'

Belinda, who is ranked No. 1 in the Northwest in girls 14 singles, won national girls 12 events in Upland, Calif., and at Tualatin Hills and finished sixth in the girls 12 competition in the SuperNationals at Lexington, Ky., this summer.

Regionally, she has played at the girls 14 level since she was 11. This summer, she won some girls 16 events and even reached the girls 18 singles finals of a tournament at Vancouver, Wash.

'There's no pressure at 18s,' says Belinda, who, along with 13 other youngsters, trains with Gross at the Academy at the University of Portland. 'If I can, I play up (in age class), just because it's more challenging. It's more fun playing better players.'

Belinda plays against boys and, in some cases, men. She recently faced Gross' father, local age-group legend Al, and beat him. The senior Gross has played many of the state's best junior boys during his career, including Brian Joelson, Jonathan Stark, Michael Calkins and Travis Parrott, and he gives Belinda high marks.

'I kind of took a set off her one day, but she's better than me,' says the senior Gross, 63, who claims to have beaten Parrott at 12, Calkins at 13 and Joelson at 17. 'Granted, I'm older now and I've slowed down, but Belinda is the best I've ever seen at that age, boy or girl. She hits the hell out of the ball. She hits the ball harder than any man I play, and I play a couple of guys who hit the ball pretty hard. She's so smart and clever on the court. Give her any kind of forehand to hit, she'll nail you in the corners. What can she weigh- 90 pounds? It's mindboggling.'

Stanford class of 2015?

Belinda is the daughter of Baohua and Ying Niu, Chinese immigrants who moved to the U.S. in 1992. She was born in Illinois and moved to Portland at age 5. She took her first tennis lesson at 9, attended a camp that summer at West Hills Racquet Club and was hooked. She practices two hours after school each weekday and three to four hours each weekend day when she is not playing tournaments.

'This past year, I've made a lot of improvement, thanks to the Academy and a lot of practice,' says Belinda, who will attend Lincoln High next year. 'Aaron does a really good job of running us through drills, playing points and working on all areas of our games.'

Belinda's self-confidence is balanced by a nice dose of humility about her game.

'At first when I'd tell her she's going to be a pro some day, she'd blush,' Aaron Gross says. 'Now she's starting to think, 'Maybe there is this potential out there for me.' '

'Going professional seems like a big leap, but if I could, I would really love to,' Belinda says. 'Otherwise, I would like to play for the Stanford team. That's where I want to go to college.'

Belinda's priorities are straight. 'Education is always first, tennis is second,' she says. 'I want to be a pediatrician, so I'd probably want to enroll in (Stanford's) medical school.'

Music relaxes

Belinda's father works at Intel Corp.; her mother is a research scientist at Oregon Health and Science University. Belinda's sister, Vicki, 9, plays tennis for fun.

'I think she's really talented, but she's more into music,' Belinda says. 'She plays violin very well. I play piano mostly because it's relaxing‚ something I can enjoy and do for fun.'

Some of the area's top juniors have chosen to go full-time to expensive tennis academies in locales in Florida or California. Belinda doesn't think she wants to do that, opting to stay in Portland where she can continue to enjoy her family and friends.

Belinda's immediate goal is to make a top 20 national ranking in girls 14 singles. Gross believes she has major potential.

'Movement is such a big thing in tennis, and she's always on her toes, has lots of energy,' he says. 'Her serve is good for her age. The path is cleared, as she keeps getting bigger and stronger, to have a big serve. Those things, along with all her intangibles, lead me to believe she's going to be pretty special down the road.'