by: COURTESY OF ALEX ROVELLO - Alex Rovello was a magnet at Cleveland High and the model for junior players in the United States Tennis Associations Pacific Northwest section.Broken hearts, indescribable pain and shock have rocked my Southeast Portland neighborhood this week — and are being felt throughout the Oregon sports and national tennis community.

Alex Rovello, the University of Oregon tennis star who died last Saturday in a cliff-diving accident, was way, way more than just an incredible athlete and the greatest champion — in any sport — in the history of Cleveland High, where I and my children have gone to school.

He was as good a human being as I have met in 42 years of sports writing.

No one I’ve talked to who knew Alex would even attempt to dispute that.

“We’re devastated. Just reeling,” says Jan Watt, the special projects coordinator at Cleveland who has been a fixture there for more than 40 years. “This is such a huge blow, just because of the person he was. The heck with athletics. He was so genuine, humble, unselfish ... ”

Alex grew up playing and hitting balls mostly at either Berkeley Park, a few blocks from his home, or Eastmoreland Racquet Club, also in the neighborhood.

Cristin Sammis, the 2002 state girls champion from Cleveland, was among those who watched him become a phenomenal player and competitor.

“I played tennis with him every day for four or five years,” she says.

In the same breath, what Sammis says stands out about Alex has nothing to do with his ground strokes or ability to return serves.

“He just had the best smile,” she says, “and the best heart. You could see and feel it.”

Everyone who knew him has a good story about Alex’s graciousness or humility.

“Last year, I went to watch him play for Oregon against Idaho,” says Bradley Eckerson, a close friend and former Cleveland teammate. “We sit down and he says, ‘I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for all you guys.’ I said, ‘You’re crazy,’ because Alex was an amazing player, the one we all looked to, the one we all rallied around. He says, ‘No, seriously. I owe you guys so much.’

“That was Alex — he not

only always made you a part of it, he wanted you to be a part of it.”

Another of Alex’s best friends, former Cleveland athlete Nelson Franks, puts it very simply: “He loved to make others happy.”

Tom Beatty, Cleveland’s longtime girls tennis coach, remembers laying his eyes on a boyish Rovello several years ago at Berkeley Park.

“Our team would be there practicing, and Alex and his dad would show up to hit balls. Alex was only this tall,” Beatty says, holding his hands to about hip height. “But you could tell he was really something.”

When Alex showed up at Cleveland as a freshman, Beatty grabbed him in the hallway and pulled him into principal Paul Cook’s office.

“Before this guy leaves here, he’s going to be the most decorated athlete Cleveland’s ever had,” Beatty told Cook.

Understandably, Beatty says, “Paul looked at me like maybe I was a little crazy, as if to say, ‘C’mon, get real.’ ”

Rovello proved Beatty correct, though, and then some.

“I knew Alex was going to be a state champion,” Beatty says. “But even I didn’t know he’d win all four.”

For the record, in junior tennis Rovello was ranked No. 1 in the Northwest. In high school competition, he never lost a match. Never even came close to losing one, really. He became the first Oregon prep to win four state titles.

The Cleveland tennis team revolved around him, but you wouldn’t know it from how he spoke or acted.

Ben Lucke, now a senior on the Cleveland team, remembers having to choose between lacrosse and tennis as a spring sport when he was a freshman.

“To be a part of the team with Alex, it was an easy choice — he was already a legend,” Lucke says.

People wanted to be around Alex, but not because was a near-cinch to win every match.

“He was always willing to play with all the guys who weren’t as good as him,” Lucke says. “He always wanted to make other people better. And he was just a regular kid, and fun to hang out with.”

Great players are often admired, but Alex was also deeply loved.

“He was a magnet,” says Mike Shanahan, Cleveland athletic director. “I’ll always remember how many of our students went to watch him at state and how they would rush the court and lift him up after he won. I’ve never seen anything like it.

“You know,” Shanahan says, “Alex could have gone to any high school he wanted to. But he chose Cleveland because of his buddies. Friends were a big, big part of his life. He was a special kid.”

Brian Parrott, the longtime tennis pro and promoter from Portland, says he believes Alex “was (Steve) Prefontaine-like in his Oregon competitive spirit. A great young man.”

To leaders of the U.S. Tennis Association’s Pacific Northwest section, Rovello was “a model” for every other young player.

“We always put Alex out there and said, ‘This is how we want to do it,’ ” says Jim Markin, director of junior player development.

Younger players took to Rovello like he was a Pied Piper.

“And if Alex was playing, everybody wanted to be there,” Markin says.

One of those who idolized him is Mitch Stewart of Federal Way, Wash., a state prep champion who won a clay-court national title last year. Stewart got to watch, learn from and, on occasion, partner with Rovello in area tournaments.

“I wanted to be like him,” says Stewart, 17. “He was the captain of everything we did in the Pacific Northwest. He was the best person and friend in the world. I’m in total shock right now.”

Tennis has become a power game, but Rovello — listed by the Ducks as 5-9 and 150 pounds and smaller than that when he was in high school — succeeded with skill, quickness, anticipation, strategy, intelligence, a unique hitting style and determination.

“A lot of guys are just big — they’re 6-4, 6-5 — but Alex was so smart, and he used the whole court,” Markin says. “He made you play long points, and he was so tough.”

Eckerson says he never saw or heard Alex make excuses, blame anyone or anything, or moan about a challenge.

“He said, ‘Yeah, I’m the smallest guy on the court, so what do I have to do? I have to be faster and smarter and technically better than everybody

I play,’ ” Eckerson says. “How

many 14-year-olds talk like that, with so much wisdom, so much knowledge? With Alex, nothing was a problem, and everything had a creative solution.”

Opponents had the utmost respect for him, too.

“Win or lose, you were just happy to be on the court with him, he was so really, really nice,” Markin says.

Alex didn’t have to play high school tennis, but he wanted to — badly — mostly because it meant a lot to his teammates, his school and the community. He felt enormous pressure to win at the Class 5A tournament, because it gave Cleveland a chance to win its first state championship ever, in any sport.

“His senior year, Alex was so stressed out,” Beatty says.

At the 2010 state tournament, with Rovello leading the way and his teammates scoring a few points (thanks in no small measure to his tutelage and guidance), the Warriors got to hoist the championship trophy.

Cleveland won by a half-point, and it came down to the finals. Alex had to win to put his school over the top. He did.

“He was so relieved,” Beatty says.

Eckerson, who already had graduated from Cleveland, got a phone call from Alex after that 2010 tournament.

“He said, ‘Brad, we won,’ and I said, ‘Hey, that’s great that you got your fourth title.’ And he said, ‘No, Brad. WE won. CLEVELAND won.’ He didn’t even care about himself. What brought him to tears was that the team, the other guys, had won.”

That was vintage Alex. The way he was every day.

He touched so many lives in his 21-plus years. He blessed us, especially those of us in the Cleveland district, with his talent. He showed us how a true winner should walk. He cared about others. He brightened every room he ever entered.

Alex, we are going to miss you so much, and we will never forget you.

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