Aug. 24, 2010
By Matt Winkeljohn
– To understand how Eliot Potvin got here from there, first you must at least try to understand at least a little about both places.
Finishing runner-up in the ITA/USTA National Summer Championship as he did a couple weeks ago at the University of Indiana was a big deal. He played perhaps the best tennis of his life, looking nothing like a hockey player even though that’s what he was once upon a time on track to become.
In Hampden, Maine, just a few miles south of Stephen King’s summer home in Bangor, old-time hockey and other cold-weather sports are all the rage. Tennis is not.
It’s not hard to find folks with wicked slap shots up there, but tracking ball strikers to hit with can be a challenge. That’s why Potvin’s mother ended up driving him for hours and hours so he could practice.
Even though he started playing tennis relatively late (roughly age 8, first tournaments around age 11) for someone who has made it to the Division I level, Potvin quickly outgrew local instruction and practice partners.
“My dad took me as far as he could, and I started working with a guy at our local club until I was about 12,” Potvin said. “A coach saw me and invited me to come to clinics in Boston. We might go Monday through Thursday for three or four weeks in the summer, and during the year we might go down one weekend a month for a weekend clinic. We did that for a few years. It was about a four-hour drive.”
There would be a lot more driving. Dean Armstrong, who owns the local tennis club in Hampden, gave the Potvins a key to the building and the green light to use the facility at all hours, but the search for sufficient coaching and practice partners seemed endless.
Potvin’s mother, a school nurse, and father, and emergency room physician, encouraged their son’s love of tennis, but it took a lot of work. Finally, Connie, the Potvins found Paul Gastonguay, the men’s and women’s coach at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. He and Eliot still work together occasionally.
“I had been ranked No. 1 in Maine for a few years and was the only competitive junior in Maine who was in the top 50 in New England, and [a friend] was always trying to help us out, trying to find people to hit with,” he said. “He knew about Paul, who had been probably the best player ever to come out of Maine.
“We went down a couple times and we decided he would work with me three days a week. We started driving down right when school would get out. It was about two hours. I’d hit with him and sometimes with somebody on the team. I was 13.”
Potvin finished Tech’s most recent spring season ranked No. 111 in the NCAA despite a nagging ankle injury. He spent most of the season playing No. 3 singles, and also played doubles.
He’ll be one of five seniors on the Tech squad this fall and next spring, when the Jackets will have high hopes. Coach Kenny Thorne first saw Potvin at a juniors tournament in Cincinnati when he was 16 or 17.
It’s been a strange trip from Hampden, Maine, to Georgia Tech.
“When I came down here to visit, it was the weekend of the [2006 season-opening] Notre Dame [football game], with ESPN Gameday here and and that blew me away,” said the health, technology and science major. “I had a blast on that visit, I loved Atlanta, really liked Kenny and the way he coaches.”
Connie Potvin logged a lot of miles on a lot of trips.
“When I look back, certainly it would have been easier for me to choose another sport,” her son said. “I played hockey until I was 14, and then started getting more serious about tennis. I played soccer through high school. My mom would pick me up at school, and I’d do homework on the way [to Bates], and by the time I finished I was exhausted. Sometimes, it was 10 o’clock by the time we left and I’d sleep on the way home.”