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State Champs!!! (Part 2)

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

MACON -- Taking a page out of mild-mannered, low-key American tennis great Pete Sampras' book Monday, Westwood sophomore Sydnee Smith didn't react, didn't say much and didn't really show any emotion before, during or after her second straight GISA Class A State Championship at No. 1 singles.

And that's OK -- because she once again let her game do all the talking.

Smith not only dominated the field en route to her second consecutive state crown in Macon, she did it without losing a match all season and -- stunningly -- she only dropped one game in the entire state tournament.

"Amazing. Just amazing," Westwood coach Carole Powell said. "That's all I can really say."

Smith, always modest and always humble about any and all success she's achieved in such a short period of time, was as calm, cool and collective Monday about her accomplishments off the court as she was while she was on it.

"It's great. Yes sir, it sure is," she answered politely and softly when asked how she felt to be a two-time state champ. "I wasn't nervous or anything. I just stuck to the game plan I had all along coming in -- and it worked."

Boy, did it ever.

Smith, who is now a staggering 84-3 in her Westwood tennis career after joining the team as an eighth-grader three years ago, simply steamrolled her way to her second state title by following up last Monday's pair of 6-0, 6-0 first- and second-round wins with a pair of 6-0, 6-0 and 6-0, 6-1, victories Monday in the semis and finals, respectively.

She blanked Ashley Purvis of Crisp Academy in their Final Four showdown, then nearly capped her second straight state title without losing a game to Oak Mountain's Savannah Seagraves, who managed to steal one game in the final set to spoil perfection.

"I knew that I hadn't lost a game before that," began Smith, "but I tried not to think about it."

But even by then, in the waning moments of the second set, the celebration among Smith's family, friends, teammates and coaches was already on.

"I felt really bad for the girl Sydnee played because she was such a good player," said Smith's mother, Jenni, who is a former star high school athlete herself and now serves as Westwood's girls basketball coach. "So while it was hard to hold our excitement in when she won, we just clapped and told her great job -- we didn't want to rub it in (to her opponent) or anything like that.

"But as soon as Sydnee came off the court, I got one big, sweaty hug."

Smith wasn't the only Westwood tennis player who made the trip Monday as teammate Coley Westbrook was still alive in the same singles bracket as Smith, but lost to Seagraves in the semis and thus missed a chance for an all-Westwood final.

"It would've been good for the school (if that had happened)," Smith said.

The other Lady Wildcats who started the day in contention for a state title was the doubles duo of Annabelle Larkin and Kaycie Eubanks, but they were eliminated in the semifinals as well.

"Unfortunately, it didn't turn out like we would've hoped for all the girls," Powell lamented. "But I'm proud of everyone and after the girls lost, they stuck around to support Sydnee, which was great."

The word "great," however, doesn't even begin to do justice for what Smith has now accomplished in two consecutive years -- and can still accomplish in the future.

Powell said it's hard not to imagine Smith ending her four-year career as a four-time state singles champ.

"I just really don't know who is going to beat her," the coach said. "I really don't see anyone doing it. She's just that good."

Smith can thank the genes of her mother -- who won a state championship in basketball her junior year at Ravenwood Academy in Meggs and then went on to play at ABAC and Georgia Southwestern -- as well as the commitment from her father, Tim, who has been his daughter's regular partner/private coach on the tennis court for years now.

"I'm just so proud of her, mostly because I saw firsthand how hard she's worked and how all the hours of practice have paid off," Tim Smith said. "She was just dominating (Monday). She didn't give away a lot of points, she was patient and she was consistent throughout the match."

Tim then paused before adding: "But did I think she would beat everyone like she did? I never imagined it. I know she's my kid (and I'm biased) but to win like she did really was just amazing."

When Smith's not practicing with her teammates, she plays almost year-round against her mom and dad at a nearby church's tennis court, which has all but become her home away from home.

"(The church) has been great to us," Tim said. "They let us come out whenever want, plug up the ball machine and just go to work. I'd say she practices at least an hour a day."

Jenni, meanwhile, says her daughter got the affinity for the game when Sydnee was just three and would spend afternoons watching her mom and dad play in a local league when they lived in the Atlanta area many years ago.

"We knew she was going to be a tennis player then, I think," Jenni said. "Not only would she sit there and watch our matches, but whenever we were finished you couldn't get her to leave the court until we brought her out there and fed her, like, a million balls to her forehand."

Maybe that's why Sydnee frustrates her opponents so much these days, whether because of her dagger-like baseline ground strokes from the forehand and backhand side that always seem to clip a line or land in a corner, or her nonchalant attitude during a match.

"I just try to stay calm and stick to my game plan when I play," Sydnee explained. "And (Monday) my angles and ground strokes were (right on target)."

Jenni, meanwhile, says that even if her daughter became flustered on the court -- which happens rarely -- no one but her would know it.

"She's a quiet kid naturally, and she doesn't brag on herself. She's just focused and really doesn't show a lot of emotion other than maybe a facial expression here or there," Jenni said. "I think that frustrates her opponents more than anything else."

Sydnee says she doesn't plan to slow down or take a break from tennis after the win, especially considering the GISA Team State Tournament begins Wednesday in Augusta. The Lady Wildcats, collectively, will make the trip after winning the Region 3-A title two weeks ago, as will the boys team, which also won region.

What about when the high school season ends? Will she take a much-deserved break then?

"Probably not," Sydnee laughed. "I'm planning on playing some tournaments (and try to get a state ranking) and then I'm going to the University of Florida for a tennis camp."

Sydnee will be attending the elite portion of the camp at the end of the summer after being awarded a scholarship from the USTA, based on her merit of what she's accomplished already, as well as an essay she wrote about why she loves the game and should be selected.

And Powell, for one, is excited to see just how much better her star pupil has become when she returns.

"She's so unassuming when you look at her, it's hard to understand just how good she is," Powell said. "That is, until she gets on the court and just blows people away."