By Joe Scalzo
As his opponent vented his frustration by screaming at himself, firing tennis balls into the fence and flipping his racquet in the air, Poland junior Garrett Gardner kept his composure even in the toughest moments of Saturday’s Division II sectional final.
It wasn’t always this way.
“It took about a gazillion dollars in tapes and books,” said his mother, JoAnn. “Only one player could play mad and that was [John] McEnroe.”
“When I was a freshman, I was probably the biggest head case around,” added Garrett, chuckling. “People would see me walk on the court and I was already yelling at myself. After a few bad shots, I would instantly go insane and just started chucking and firing balls into fences.
“I’ve been working on that for a good year or two, just letting negative shots go and saying good things about myself.”
That, maybe more than any other factor, is why the top-seeded Gardner earned his first sectional title on Saturday, gutting out a tough 6-4 opening set at Boardman High School, then cruising 6-0 in the second set as second-seeded Jad Abdul-Aal of Warren JFK spent as much time battling himself as Gardner.
“In the first set, we were both going at it and both playing our games,” said Abdul-Aal, who made it to the state tournament last season after finishing third at the sectional tournament. “I had my chances but couldn’t pull through.
“In the second set, nothing was working. There’s no other way to put it.”
Gardner hadn’t dropped a game through his first three sectional games, but Abdul-Aal won the first game on serve to go up 1-0.
Gardner broke him on Abdul-Aal’s second service game to take a 3-1 lead, but Abdul-Aal broke back at 4-3. Gardner immediately got that point back, then outlasted Abdul-Aal in a terrific final game to take the set.
While Abdul-Aal is capable of playing brilliant tennis, he rushed his play throughout the second set, taking unnecessary risks and piling up unforced errors.
Gardner, meanwhile, found his legs and his rhythm in the second set.
“I told Garrett he needs to be like a boxer,” JoAnn said. “Don’t punch yourself out early.”
“The first set, I was really tight and I could feel it in my legs,” Garrett said. “I got over my nerves, my legs started settling down a bit and I got moving.”
Gardner advanced to the state doubles tournament as a freshman two years ago but got ousted in the first round of last year’s district tournament by Hawken sophomore Dhruv Yadav, an eventual state qualifier.
“Districts is going to be the big one,” Gardner said. “Hopefully the draw goes in my favor this year and I can make it to state. But it doesn’t matter which guy I have to play. It doesn’t matter if I’m playing [Roger] Federer out there.”
Third-seeded Aaron Paczak (Lakeview) beat fourth-seeded Les Horvath (Ursuline) 6-2, 6-0 in the third-place final. All four players advance to next week’s district tournament in Canton.
On the doubles side, JFK’s Tyler Cole and John Nader won the sectional title by beating Poland’s Ryan Calcagni and Anthony Ricciardi 7-6 (2), 6-2. Cardinal Mooney’s Rich Hill and Andrew Stille placed third by beating Lakeview’s Eric Rohrabaugh 2-6, 6-4, 6-3.
“We played them earlier in the season and had a little easier time, but they played a great match today,” Nader said. “So we were actually a little thrown off [in the first set]. You’ve got to stick it in fifth gear sometimes when you come into those tough matches.”
Cole and Nader, who play singles during the regular season, lost in last year’s sectional doubles final and fell in the first round of the district tournament.
“That’s why it was very important for us to get the No. 1 seed, because you’re going to have a better draw,” said Cole, who admitted it takes time to adjust to playing doubles after spending all season at singles. “We’re really close friends and we’ve been friends since we were little, so we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. We can pump each other up if we’re struggling.”
In the Division I sectional, Canfield’s top doubles team of Nick Debiec and William Brown won their semifinal match over Massillon Jackson, 6-4, 6-2, before falling to North Canton Hoover in the final, 6-2, 6-0.
The Cardinals earned the second seed for next week’s district tournament at Oberlin. They were the only area players in Division I — either in singles or doubles — to advance.