To say that Mt. Spokane sophomore Graham Clark is his team’s No. 1 boys tennis player undersells his game by a good margin.
Not only are his goals loftier than just high school tennis, his game is growing beyond it as well.
Clark is ranked No. 12 in the Pacific Northwest in the 16-year-old division.
“I’ve been playing two to four hours per day since I was about 8 years old,” Clark said. “When I get done with my high school practice, I usually go off to work another couple hours with my coach.”
Clark’s coach is his father, Eastern Washington University tennis coach Steve Clark, who also coached at Chapman, Texas Tech and UC Irvine before coming to Spokane to be the director at the Spokane Racquet Club before taking the job in Cheney. He’s enjoyed a 25-year career in collegiate tennis.
After starting early with the game, Clark took a break from it for two years.
“He just kind of got burned out,” Mt. Spokane coach Don Story said. “He came back to the game to play as a freshman for us last year.”
A year ago Clark qualified for the State Class 3A tournament, where he won his first match before losing in the quarterfinals to eventual state champion Alan Yin of Seattle’s Lakeside, then falling to Mercer Island’s Chris Elliott, who placed fourth.
“For a freshman he got a horrible draw,” Story said. “His second match he had to play the state champion, a senior who ended up getting a full-ride scholarship to play tennis at Stanford. And then he had to play the kid who finished second the year before. That’s rough.”
“Playing in the state tournament is a whole different thing,” Clark said. “That’s a totally different level from what we play every week.
“That’s pretty much what I’m playing for. I want to play well at state and, hopefully, that will help me get a college scholarship. That’s something that can be valuable.”
Clark and his father aren’t keeping all their eggs in that particular basket. Since last spring Clark has ramped up his participation in junior tennis tournaments, increasing both his visibility on the circuit and improving his Universal Tennis Rating.
“I really didn’t have a UTR a year ago,” Clark said. “I didn’t start playing a lot of tournaments until after the season. But I do know that my game has improved a lot since last year.
“I can give you an example. In my very first high school match I played against a guy from Mead and he beat me something like 6-3, 6-2. I played him again this year and I beat him, 6-1, 6-0.”
“What I see that’s different about Graham this year is that he’s just a lot more skilled this year after all the hard work he’s put in,” Story said. “The kid just obliterates the ball. But the second thing is that, mentally, he’s having more fun playing the game.
“And there is no doubt in my mind that he knows exactly what he wants to accomplish in the game and he’s willing to put in the hard work to make it happen.”
Last weekend Clark was in Roseburg, Oregon, playing in a boys level 4 tournament, where he and his doubles partner, Phillip Deaton of Auburn, won the title.
“When you play a tournament at a specific UTR, you can always play someone from a higher or lower UTR, depending on what the tournament is like,” Clark said. “If you’re a 4 and you play a 5, you’re probably going to get blanked.
“The top tennis players in the world? They’re mostly a 16. Maybe a 15.9.”
At most tournaments Clark doubles up, playing singles and doubles.
“I have a terrific doubles partner and he’s really good,” Clark said. “I really enjoy playing doubles. I didn’t have such a good tournament in singles, but that’s OK. I’ll be playing another tournament next weekend.”
Clark averages a tournament every other weekend, but occasionally he plays on back-to-back weekends.
Clark said he and his father have a couple aspects of his game they’re concentrating on.
“One of the big things I’m working on playing a lot looser and not letting myself get too nervous in a match,” he said. “That’s been a challenge for me. I’ve had a tendency to play really, really well in practice and then playing poorly in matches.
“What’s helping is for me to think of every match I play in as just another practice session. That’s working, because when you get right down to it that’s exactly what it is. No matter who you’re playing, in a tournament or in a high school match, there’s always something you can work on. You can work on getting your first serve in or you can work on or improving your second serve. It’s all an opportunity to work on your game and make yourself better.”
In an era where, even at the junior level, singles players are working in developing a big serve and controlling the game from the baseline, Clark is going a different direction.
“My dad has me working on my serve-and-volley game,” he said. “That’s always a good card to have in your hand in a match. And it really helps me with my doubles game. If you look at the player who’s ranked No. 1 in the Pacific Northwest, that’s something he’s really good at.”