July 1, 2012
By Jon Cooper
– There’s something special about that first professional event.
Georgia Tech men’s tennis head coach Kenny Thorne remembers his — we’ll get back to that — but finds seeing his pupils making theirs even more rewarding.
That most recent reward came last weekend, when Thorne’s All-America doubles team of Kevin King and Juan Spir made their ITF Futures tournament debut, at the Florida Beer Company Pro Tennis Tournament presented by Revolution Technologies, which took place in Indian Harbor Beach, Fla.
Tech’s duo finished runners-up in the event.
“It’s nice to see them break through in their first pro tournament,” Thorne said. “The Futures tournaments get a lot of the best college guys as well as aspiring pros that maybe haven’t been out there too long. So to break through at that level in their first event together is great. They’ve proven themselves time and time again at [the college] level. I’m not real surprised. I expected them to do really well.”
King and Spir were happy with how they fared.
“I thought it was a great weekend for the two of us,” said King, recently named ACC men’s tennis Scholar-Athlete of the Year and who graduates in the fall. “It was the first time we got to play together at the pro level. It was good seeing how we stack up against other guys out there. Playing with Juan, it almost felt like we were back in college.”
“You’re playing for yourself and for each other, so we were enjoying ourselves out there as much as we could and we were just having fun,” said Spir, who has one more year of eligibility. “We always have fun and try to enjoy it as much as we can but this time we felt less pressure. It was enjoyable. It was different.”
Playing professionally didn’t look much different from playing at the Bill Moore Tennis Center. After an opening-round 6-1, 6-2 victory over the team of Siyu Liu and Chuhan Wang of China, King and Spir took out the tournament’s top-seeded team of former FSU star Vahid Mirzadeh and Joshua Zavalan, 6-1, 6-4, in the quarterfinals. Then, in the semis, they knocked off the University of Virginia team of Alex Domijan and Mitchell Frank, 6-3, 3-6, and 10-5 in the third-set tiebreaker.
But the 10-point tiebreaker turned against King and Spir in the finals, as they fell, 2-6, 6-3, 4-10 to the team of former University of Illinois star Ruben Gonzales and Barbados Davis Cup team representative Darian King.
The loss in the tiebreaker — basically, a race to 10 points — was a frustrating ending to a frustrating match that took two days to complete due to several rain delays courtesy of Tropical Storm Debby.
“I definitely would prefer a full third set,” said King. “When you get into a tiebreaker anyone can win. It’s really a coin-toss. In [the final], we were playing well, we had the momentum after winning the second set, so I would have loved to have seen it go to a third set, but it was a good tournament and it was exciting.”
“It’s like penalty kicks in soccer,” said Spir. “It can go either way. One or two bad points and the match is over. But that’s tennis and that’s how pro doubles tennis is. So we have to get used to it.”
As he starts out his pro career, King also will have to get used to the limited financial gain. He earned around $165 for the second-place finish in Florida, an amount he admitted barely covered expenses. Spir is still an amateur and is not allowed to accept prize money.
But at this point, the money is secondary.
“The Futures is not about the money,” said Thorne. “It’s about getting the points and trying to get your world ranking up there.”
King will take his next step in that regard when he participates in singles and doubles at the BB&T Atlanta Open, to be held at Atlantic Station July 14-22. In lieu of Spir, King will team with Georgia’s Ignacio Taboada. He’ll try an make history repeat as in last year’s event, when he teamed with Georgia’s Drake Bernstein to knock off the event’s top seed and defending champions Scott Lipsky and Rajeev Ram.
“I’m enjoying [playing pro] a lot,” King said. “This was the goal going into school I planned to do this after finishing up my eligibility, so it’s an exciting time, and I’m looking forward to the next couple of months and years, hopefully.”
By next year at this time, King can look forward to being reunited with Spir.
“We’ve talked about it,” Spir said. “We know we can do very well out there and we’re a dangerous team. Hopefully things can work out in the future.”
Once they reunite, it will be with the advantage of having experienced success in their first pro match.
That puts them a leg up on Thorne, whose debut was memorable but for a different reason.
Thorne had graduated from Georgia Tech a couple of weeks prior and found himself in Los Angeles playing Michael Chang, who was ranked in the top five in the world and in his previous match had defeated a then-up-and-comer named Pete Sampras.
But Thorne’s shock of seeing his competition paled in comparison to who was seeing him.
“I was fine in the locker room, then I started walking out into this big stadium. I looked up, and I saw Johnny Carson was in the box right next to the court where I was going to be sitting,” he recalled. “He was the big guy in late-night television and he was going to be watching the match. Needless to say, my mind was in all the wrong places. I think I got beat in 52 minutes, in straight sets, 6-1, 6-1. I don’t remember much about it other than I saw so many balls go past me and over my head and I was never comfortable out there. I realized ‘This is for keeps.’ It made me realize how tough it was going to be out there.
“Johnny Carson, that was a neat thing,” he added, with a laugh. “I’m sure he made some jokes about it, how he wanted to see a good match and Michael Chang disposed of somebody pretty quickly that night. Somebody, that was what I was … or nobody.”