By Keith Mills
Three thousand miles from the All England Club in London, two dozen of Baltimore's premier tennis players gathered on a hot and muggy morning at the Suburban Club in Pikesville.
They served and volleyed, ran down balls on the baseline and smashed overheads at the net, ignoring the 95-degree temperatures to dream of maybe one day playing on the same Centre Court at Wimbledon where Roger Federer and Serena Williams dominated earlier this month.
"I love Federer," Sophie Chang said. "The Williams sisters are OK, but I've always been a Maria Sharapova fan."
Chang is 15 years old and one of the premier junior tennis players in the country. Like so many other young players, she followed closely what was happening earlier this summer across the Atlantic Ocean on the famed courts of London.
Unlike so many others, Chang is one of the best young players on the East Coast. She makes the one-hour trip from Havre de Grace in Harford County to Pikesville almost every day to take part in the Hawk Eye Tennis Camp, the creation of Ross Coleman, the tennis coach at Suburban, whose combination of on-court technical excellence and off-court understanding of the young athlete has made his program one of the best in the country.
"I think everybody has certain passions," Coleman said. "I think experience dictates what you do with that passion. I was lucky. First as a junior, then at Washington College, then as a pro, people taught me what was important on the tennis court -- the right way to play, the right way to act.
"Passion really pulled me through. You learn and evolve as a coach so that you're able to maybe help the kids tennis-wise, but also help them shape certain humility and life skills. When those two are combined, the tennis starts to develop at a high level."
A lot of coaches preach balance between success and humility, trophies and modesty, championships and perspective. Coleman and assistant coach Terri Gaskill, Suburban's director of racket sports, actually practice what they preach. Both played at a high level when they were competing at the junior, high school and collegiate levels, and both now are comfortable sacrificing a local or regional championship for what has become the mantra of this club.
There is no racket throwing, no on-court temper tantrums and no "I'm better than you" egos, just respect for an opponent and an appreciation for the fine line between winning and losing.
"It's a cutthroat sport," Coleman said. "You're dealing with a lot of individuals, who will do anything to win. It's not pretty at the lower levels, even the semipro level. You have to be more mentally tough than at the elite level.
"There's always competition and there's always some attitudinal adjustments to be made. But these kids as a group help each other to evolve physically and mentally to become better people. When the tennis is over, and it's going to be over, we have to look at the relationships, and the relationship makes the journey and the program invaluable."
Coleman graduated from Pikesville High in 1982. After playing tennis at the University of Maryland for two years, he transferred to Washington College in Chestertown, where he played for coach Fred Wyman and helped the Shoremen win Middle Atlantic Conference championships in 1986 and '87 and finish seventh in the NCAA Division III national tournament in '87.
His doubles partner at Washington was Tim Gray, who led the Shoremen to their first of two national Division III championships as coach in 1994. Gray later became the women's coach at Auburn.
Coleman's junior coach was Lew Gerrard, a former Davis Cup player from New Zealand who took Coleman's game to a new level and helped him play as a professional both nationally and internationally. Coleman later returned to his hometown and began coaching. Four years ago, Gaskill hired him to run the tennis program at Suburban.
A soccer, basketball and tennis standout at Andover High School in Linthicum, Gaskill was named The Baltimore Sun's Female Athlete of the Year in 1983. After a collegiate career at James Madison, she was named the United States Tennis Association's Mid-Atlantic Player of the Year in 1997 and was inducted into the Anne Arundel County Sports Hall of Fame five years later.
"She has been nothing but an amazing catalyst to this program," Coleman said of Gaskill, who played tennis at Andover for coach Dan Krimmelbein, who volunteers his time to assist Coleman with his group of young players. "She said, 'We're a country club, and you need to be a pro for the country club.' At the same time, she said, 'We want to see what we can do with the team.'
"I've never had the opportunity with a facility like this. It's unique. With her blessing, she has allowed us to soar. It's been invaluable. I am very grateful for the opportunity."
Coleman is quick to point to his talented group of players as another big reason for the club's success. There is a unique combination of rising young juniors, who are just starting to reach their potential, and college standouts, who still come back to Suburban to play for Coleman and assist in the development of the young players.
"I love it here," said Beatrice Grasu, who won the girls' state public schools championship as a senior at Franklin High in 2003. "I love tennis and I love hitting with the kids."
Grasu went on to play at the University of Richmond, where she was the Spiders' No. 1 singles player and earned first team All-Atlantic 10 honors in 2007. She has since earned her medical degree and now works in the orthopedic department of Union Memorial Hospital.
"I'm so lucky to do my residency at Union Memorial," Grasu said. "I live three miles from here, and sometimes I ride my bicycle here. It's still very relevant to me. Tennis is now a relief from work. It gives you that independence that comes from leadership and confidence. Eventually, when I'm in the operating room, I'll feel very comfortable in a leadership position, because I was out there on the court basically leading myself.
"Ross was my coach growing up, and now he's my friend. I've known him since I was 7. He's been an excellent mentor to me and I'm really lucky to be able to come back and help him out whenever I can."
Coleman welcomes back his older players with open arms. Among them are Alex Sidney, Lindsey and Michael Katz, Christina Harrington, Alec Hoblitzell and Michael Razumovsky. They all return now not just to refine their games, but to share what they've learned with the younger players.
"That's the biggest thing," said Sidney, a 2011 graduate of McDonogh, who just completed his freshman year at Cornell University. "Though you're playing individually, you've got people on the court next to you playing, people watching you. You're not playing for yourself. You're playing for the program. Ross has this thing. If you have a good tournament, when you come back, you say thanks to the whole group for getting you to that point. You couldn't have done it without them."
Sidney won the MIAA A Conference singles championship two years ago, finishing with a 117-3 career record at McDonogh and ranking as the 16th-best player in the country as a senior. Two weeks ago, he won both the singles and doubles championships and an Intercollegiate Tennis Association tournament in Pittsburgh.
"How can I leave this guy?" Sidney said of Coleman. "He got me to where I am today. I came to Ross when I was 12. I played a tournament here and there, and was fairly serious about tennis. He took me to a higher level, higher than I ever thought I could be."
Sidney's big rival in high school was Michael Katz, a 2010 Gilman graduate and now a sophomore at Princeton.
Michael's older sister Lindsey is also one of Coleman's players. A 2009 graduate of Roland Park Country School, she won the IAAM singles championship as a senior in '09 and now is captain of the Tufts University women's team in Boston.
Harrington is a former Anne Arundel County singles champ at Severna Park High. She just completed her freshman year at Delaware. Hoblitzell was Michael Katz's teammate at Gilman and will be a sophomore on the team at Skidmore College in Saratoga, N.Y., while Pikesville High's Razumovsky led Kenyan College of Ohio to the No. 2 ranking in the NCAA Division III men's bracket.
Razumovsky also reached the semifinals of the national tournament before losing to California Lutheran's Nick Ballou.
"Personal goals have changed over the years," Coleman said. "When I first started, it was just to survive out here, just to find a way to develop kids into decent tennis players. Now, it's the relationships and the fact that so many kids come back. I would be surprised and maybe even uncomfortable if it wasn't that way.
"It's a gift. It's a family. You've learned to some degree how to develop kids, but you're also surrounded by this group of stellar individuals, and it really keeps going. If it didn't, I'd probably change my profession."
Chang is one of Suburban's top junior players. Tall and talented, but modest and humble, she personifies Coleman's mission.
"That's the staple for the program," Coleman said. "All the kids, if they don't start out with that kind of humility or integrity, they will end up that way. Alex had a rough start when he came here. He was a little temperamental, but he learned, and now he is a real leader and inspiration to the other kids. Sophie is special. She really is."
Chang traveled to Virginia Beach in June for the U.S. Junior National Clay Court championships. Homeschooled by her parents, Ginny and Robert, Chang will be a rising high school sophomore and is ranked 29th nationally by the United States Tennis Association.
"I first picked up a racket when I was 3.5 and started playing multiple times a week when I was 6 or 7," said Chang, who came to Suburban when she was 12. "I really developed a passion for the game when I was 11 or 12."
Chang is known for her splendid all-around game and her smile.
"I'm always smiling," Chang said. "It's not pressure for me. There's a little more in tournaments, but it seems just normal for me. When I get on the court, I just say, 'Hey, let's go play.' Whatever happens, happens."
Gabrielle Centenari will be a sophomore this fall at McDonogh and will defend her IAAM singles championship. Her brother Xander, now a junior at Dartmouth, won two straight MIAA championships and was named The Baltimore Sun's Tennis Player of the Year in 2008. Her older sister Kristana won two IAAM singles championships in leading the Eagles to a pair of conference championships.
Lily Burchell is 13 years old and from Ruxton. Last year, she was ranked No. 1 in the Mid-Atlantic region and No. 25 nationally in the under-12 age group.
Like Chang, Scott and Sean Scully are from Harford County. Like Chang, the Churchville brothers are also nationally ranked by the United States Tennis Association. Scott is 11 years old, ranked 15th nationally by the USTA and a former national champion. Sean is 13 and ranked 19th. He reached the quarterfinals July 2 at the U.S. Under-14 Nationals in Little Rock, Ark.
They are also two of the youngest players on the team, a team that has endured the brutal heat the last month to take part in both the Hawk Eye Tennis Camps at Suburban and an endless array of tournaments on the weekends, much like a young Coleman did when he was learning the game in the 1980s and early '90s.
"During the tough times, I met the right people," Coleman said, "and those people instilled things in me without teaching. It was the role models that didn't speak that spoke the loudest. People who told me not to throw my racket, well, I threw my racket. I didn't respond to them. I learned a lot from watching Bjorn Borg. When I saw how he responded with an ice-cold approach to winning or losing, that really left a mark.
"There was one guy who I played with at Maryland that taught me how to handle controversy and turn it into a positive. His name was Blase Keating -- a great player, but a better role model."
The same could be said of Coleman.
"When it's all over, the intangibles are what we'll remember -- how we touched each other, how we looked out for each other," Coleman said. "We'll remember the journey."
Issue 175: July 2012