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High school tennis gets a frosh face

PREP FOCUS: Cleveland's Alex Rovello has the game to make a big first impression
by: JIM CLARK, Cleveland freshman Alex Rovello’s tennis lessons began at age 2 from his father at Berkeley Park. Now 15, he could contend for a state title.

The new kid in PIL tennis town, freshman Alex Rovello, plays for Class 5A Cleveland.

That's good news for Peter Jones, a sophomore from 6A Lincoln.

Jones won the PIL singles title last year, when all the league's teams were in 4A. He's played a lot of doubles with Rovello and trains with him at Eastmoreland Racquet Club under pro Derin Hibbs.

'I can't beat Alex,' Jones says. 'I've probably played him 20 times and lost every time.

'I don't think he'll lose a high school match all year.'

Hibbs says he can't recall Jones winning a set from his Cleveland buddy.

'The sky's the limit for Alex,' Hibbs says. 'His hand-eye coordination is in the top 1 percent in the country.

'And the big thing is he's an absolute pleasure to work with. I've had state champions and nationally ranked players, and he's way more coachable than any of them.

'He's become kind of like a little brother to me. Everybody loves him.'

Rovello is ranked 18th nationally among high school freshmen. In the Pacific Northwest, he's been ranked No. 1 in three age groups. Nationally, he was 27th in 12-and-under, 32nd in 14-and-under and is currently 124th in 16-and-under. He turns 16 on June 25.

He's so well-known and well-respected in the Cleveland district, he already has his photo framed and hanging up at a neighborhood sports hangout, the Skybox Pub and Grill in Sellwood.

When he was attending Sellwood Middle School, there was talk that Rovello might wind up joining Jones at Lincoln - but he says it was Cleveland all the way.

'I chose Cleveland because all my friends were going there and I wanted to follow in the tradition of the people who made me become as good as I am today,' he says.

In particular, he thanks former Warrior players Cristin and Ashley Sammis, Beau Smith and Jacob Gilden.

Cristin Sammis won the state singles title in 2002; she and Ashley reached the doubles semifinals in 2001.

'I watched them play for Cleveland and thought someday it would be my turn to play tennis as a Cleveland Warrior,' Rovello says.

It all began for him at Berkeley Park, a few blocks from Duniway Elementary School, which he attended and where his mother, Geri, teaches second grade.

'My dad (Jim, a physical education teacher) had me hit baseballs off a tee there at age 2,' Rovello says. 'I was doing so well, he had me try tennis. He'd toss balls to me, and I'd hit them back.'

At age 8, Rovello joined an older group for lessons from Hibbs. Not long after that, Hibbs and Cristin Sammis would test the youngster. They'd walk up to the service line and send crushing serves at him. 'He'd pick them up like mad,' Hibbs says.

'Alex has amazing hands,' says Sammis, who went on to play for University of Portland, graduating last May. 'He's really good at the net and has really nice touch.'

Asked what he feels he needs to improve on, he answers without hesitation: 'My height.'

At 5-feet-4, he's shorter than most competitors, but he hasn't had a growth spurt. 'My dad is 6-3 or 6-4, and the doctor says I could be a late bloomer and be 6-2,' he says.

The thought of a 6-2 Alex Rovello causes Jones to all but shiver.

'That would be scary,' Jones says.

Rovello, who weighs about 108 pounds, says he uses his current stature to his benefit.

'It causes my opponents to think I'm just an easy pushover,' he says.

'He hits the ball harder than kids who outweigh him by 50 pounds,' Hibbs says.

Rovello plays left-handed and is mostly left-handed off the court - although he eats and writes with his right hand. He is excellent at anticipating shots and getting into position to make quick returns.

'He cuts off the court and takes the ball as early as the tour guys on TV,' Hibbs says. 'He's always inside the baseline, so his opponents wind up doing three times as much running as he does.'

Rovello says he likes that in tennis 'success rests solely on yourself.' He'd like to play in college, listing his favorite schools as Oregon, Texas, UCLA and Florida.

'I'd like to become a professional tennis player,' he says, 'and if I don't make it as a player, I'd like to be a tennis pro/coach.'

He could become the second boys state tennis champion in Cleveland history. Jon Wall won in 1976, the only year the school has won a league title in boys tennis.

'I don't know if I want to set goals, because if I didn't achieve them I'd be disappointed,' Rovello says. 'I'd just like to play well and win the state team title.'

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