Teen Ousts Champ
Riverheads Graduate In Title Match
HARRISONBURG – For the first two sets of his men’s singles semifinal match at the Harrisonburg Tennis Patrons tournament, Simon Willard donned a white Nike hat that had been autographed years earlier by Luke Jensen.
The signature – which came courtesy of Jensen, who won the 1993 French Open men’s doubles title with his younger brother Murphy – had kept Willard from wearing the cap in match play up until this week.
But today’s more mature version of Willard – a recent Riverheads High School graduate — isn’t concerned with trivial things like appearances. He said the cap was more practical for his recent matches because it doesn’t soak up sunlight like his black alternate did.
Willard’s growth – both as a tennis player and as an adult – was on full display Thursday at Harrisonburg High School. Showcasing patience and savvy beyond his years, he dethroned defending HTP Open champion Jeff Tang 6-4, 5-7, 6-0 in a three-hour-plus match.
“It feels really great. I feel like I kind of proved myself,” said Willard, who moves on to face former James Madison standout Mike Hendricksen in today’s final. “I mean, I believe in myself. But I feel like that was kind of a personal milestone for sure.
“… I can’t really think of a time when I’ve played better than this. [I’m] as confident as I’ve ever been.”
While the match proved to be physically draining for both men – the 41-year-old Tang entered play battling tendonitis in his right elbow – Willard said his breakthrough victory was “almost all mental.”
The ever-cerebral Tang – the field’s No. 2 overall seed — has made a name for himself at the HTP Open by frustrating opponents, particularly teenagers, with his grit, consistency and forward thinking.
But on Thursday, there was no doubt about who the fresher man was heading into the third set. Tang admittedly came out stiff following a lengthy intermission, while Willard – at age 18 – moved as well as he had in the first two hours of the match.
“I’m spent,” said Tang, who needed nearly three hours to record a three-set quarterfinal victory over Freddie Roberts – Willard’s former high school doubles partner – on Monday. “That last set, I just didn’t have anything left in the tank. I don’t think it was a general fatigue; I think I could go out and run right now. But it’s tennis-muscle fatigue. I haven’t been playing enough.”
However, Tang — a professor in JMU’s Department of Integrated Science and Technoology – was also quick to give credit where it was due.
“At the end of the day, I’m not sure if I’m 100 percent I would have beat him,” he said. “He played a great match and he’s gotten a lot better. He’s hitting the ball so well right now. And a lot of the young players, the low balls bother ‘em; [they] didn’t bother him at all. He volleyed incredibly well. I was very surprised at how well he volleyed. I mean, I knew he wasn’t a bad volleyer but he just blanketed the net and got everything.”
Hendricksen, the 2008 HTP Open champion and this year’s No. 1 overall seed, picked up a dominant 6-1, 6-0 victory over third-seeded Craig Westwood to clinch his spot in the final.
Willard and Tang didn’t quite call it a night after their singles bout, either. The duo – pairing with Landon Aud and Annie Bailey, respectively – faced off again for the mixed doubles title following a quick breather.