Clash of champions kicks off prep tennis season

Hampton vs. Baba show what's good about prep tennis in Clark County

By Paul Valencia, Columbian high school sports reporter

Published:

 

Girls tennis primer

WORTH NOTING

THUNDER INVITATIONAL: Mountain View’s annual tournament is branching out this season. Clark County teams such as Skyview, Prairie, Columbia River and Hudson’s Bay will be joined by Bellarmine Prep of Tacoma, Bainbridge Island, and Todd Beamer of Federal Way. The tournament is March 22-23.

YOUNG GUNS: Freshmen shined at state last year. Now, they’re sophomores: Skyview’s Sammi Hampton, Prairie’s Akari Baba, and Camas’ Esther Kwon. Kwon placed eighth in 3A singles.

TOUGH 4A GSHL: With Camas moving to Class 4A, Union, Camas and Skyview will be battling it out for the league title. In addition to Hampton, Skyview also returns a two-time doubles state qualifier in senior Kristina Metz.

MENTALLY TOUGH: Prairie should not only have a good team, but they’ve got the brains to match. The average GPA of the Falcons’ top 11 players is 3.728. Two players have 4.0s (Baba and Becky Shirley) and six players have a GPA of 3.831 or better.

Sammi Hampton described it as nerve-racking, and she is the one who won in straight sets.

Akari Baba said it was an honor to be part of such a prestigious match.

Hampton, a sophomore from Skyview, defeated Baba, a sophomore from Prairie, 6-0, 6-0 Wednesday in what was the first regular-season match pitting defending state champions from Clark County.

"It's a little bit nerve-racking at the beginning," Hampton said. "You're battling a state champion. You don't know who's going to win."

"I didn't feel like I played my best tennis, but obviously that's because's she's way better than me," Baba said after the match.

Hampton went undefeated as a freshman, losing one set all season in winning the Class 4A state singles title.

Akari won a Class 3A state doubles title with her sister Shiori. Now that Shiori has graduated, Akari is playing singles this season.

With Prairie taking on Skyview in a non-league match Wednesday, their coaches put their No. 1 players up against each other.

"It makes me feel very proud of the caliber of athletes that Clark County can produce," Prairie coach Chris Linquist said.

She has been coaching at Prairie for 29 years and said she could not recall a match of defending champions. A quick search of the Washington Interscholastic Activities Associations's tournament history showed that of the handful of Clark County athletes who have won tennis titles, none of them overlapped in the same year and faced each other the next season.

"It's awesome for the sport of tennis," Skyview coach Jay Gowen said. "It highlights two bright, rising stars who choose to represent their schools. They could do what a lot of (elite) people do and not play high school tennis. They represent what's good about high school tennis."

Both athletes are excellent students, and their coaches say the grace and sportsmanship they show on and off the court are qualities that will not be shown on the results page of the Sports section.

"She's the nicest kid I've ever coached, and obviously she's the best," Gowan said of Hampton.

"You've got the full package," Linquist said of Baba.

Hampton showcased her skills Wednesday with a near-flawless performance. A top player can win even on an off day. When she is hitting everything just pure, well, that's how one can beat a skilled opponent 6-love, 6-love.

"It feels like all the cards are in your favor," Hampton said. "You just hit it and it hits clean off the racket and it just feels amazing. There are bad days when you frame it, and you can't get the ball on the court. Then there are the good days when everything is perfect. Luckily I had that today against her."

Hampton's state title last year just gave her more motivation to repeat. She stepped up her workouts, performing the strenuous P90X workout system, among other things.

"Instead of just playing more tennis, I've been working out more so I can be a better athlete on the court," said Hampton, ranked No. 1 by the United States Tennis Association Northwest Section for girls 18 and under. "Everybody is like, 'You won state once so you can do it again.' You have to work even harder to make sure you can."

Gowan watches her every day and yet still seems amazed at what he sees.

"Last year, she was already good," he said. "This year, I don't even know of the right words for it."

As far as Baba, the final score of Wednesday's match was misleading. She was going up against the best player in the state who was having an awesome day. On Tuesday, the two champions faced off in a one-set competition during a jamboree exhibition. Hampton won that 6-3.

Linquist said she knew all along that Baba would be a strong singles player. Last year, though, Akari wanted to play with her sister.

"Being together, it guaranteed them both a trip to state," Linquist said. "That they won the state title, that was a real bonus.

"It was a really cool opportunity to do something like that and kind of selfless. I think Akari could have done really well (in singles)."

This season, the singles competition is not as strong in the 3A Greater St. Helens League. Some top seniors graduated and Camas has moved to the 4A GSHL.

Baba said she expects to win district and hopes to win regionals and get to state. She also appreciates taking on top 4A competition in the non-league matches.

"It's a big honor to play against her," Baba said of Hampton.

Hampton enjoyed the competition, too. Sure, on the scoreboard it looked like just another match. But Hampton said she can notice a difference when she faces a talented opponent.

"I love hitting with people who are really good. You get into a great rhythm," she said. "It was really fun."

It also was a first for Clark County girls high school tennis, featuring a pair of first-place performers.