By Tommy Keeler Jr.
FRONT ROYAL --Two years ago, Central's Sam Barbour decided to give tennis a shot just for fun. Since then his love of the sport has grown, and on Thursday he captured his first Conference 28 singles championship.
Barbour pulled out two long matches in the heat at Skyline High School. The Central junior beat John Champe's Victor Ding, 6-3, 2-6, 6-4 in the final. Both Barbour and Ding advance to the 3A East Regionals in two weeks. Ding beat Warren County's Casey Stewart in three sets in the semifinals.
"I started tennis last year just for fun," Barbour said with his championship medal draped around him. "I never would have thought I'd be one seed in the first place and then champion -- it doesn't even feel right, but I like it. It feels good."
In the finals, Barbour trailed 3-1 in the first set but then ran off five straight games to take the opening set.
Barbour said his strategy started to pay off at the end of the first set against Ding, who he lost to in three sets just last week.
"He's a great player," Barbour said of Ding. "What you got to do with him, since he's got such a nice shot, you got to mix things up. That's where I started slicing a whole lot and then when he'd come up, you could take it down the line. You just got to figure out your opponent and my strategy was switching things up and not just hitting all forehands and topspin."
Ding won the last four games of the second set, but Barbour took control of the third set from the start. He broke Ding's serve for a 2-0 lead. Barbour served for the match at 5-3, but Ding broke back and saved a match point in the ninth game.
Barbour was unfazed and saved a game point with a nice backhand volley winner. Two points later, an error by Ding on a long point gave Barbour the one-hour, 28-minute match.
"I'm definitely tired," Barbour said. "What's important is when you get tired, it's not about how good you're playing, it's about how smart you're playing."
Barbour had a two-hour and 30-minute match in the semifinals against Loudoun Valley's Dakota Deleonardis. Barbour pulled out the win, 7-5, 4-6, 6-4.
Trailing 5-2 in the first set, Barbour rolled off five straight games to win the 50-minute set.
In the third set, Barbour took a 4-0 lead, but Deleonardis battled back to 4-3. Barbour was 0-40 on his serve in the next game, but then won five consecutive points, including two service winners and two volley winners.
"I knew it was a big game, and I just wanted to win it," Barbour said.
They each held serve as Barbour finished off the match with a forehand volley winner.
Central coach Luke Robinson said Barbour has really improved since the start of the season.
"His serve has improved," Robinson said. "His second serve is not the fastest, but now he'll actually get it in and focus. He's taken some off his first serve just to get his first serve in, which is crucial. He said he's been watching more tennis now, and he understands more and strategy."
Stewart is also in only his second year playing tennis, and showed how far he's come in his semifinal with Ding.
Ding took a 5-1 lead in the first set, but Stewart rallied back. He cut the lead to 5-3 before Ding finished off the set.
Stewart took that momentum and cruised to the second set, 6-2.
"The first set he had a lot more confidence than I did," Stewart said. "I wasn't playing with the right mindset. The second set, once I was down [a set], I played a little bit better."
Stewart said he began keeping the ball in play and allowing Ding to make the mistake. Then as third set started the wind picked up and Stewart's game was suddenly gone with the wind as well.
Ding finished off the match for a 6-3, 2-6, 6-0 win.
"That wind coming up right at the start of the third set really killed him," Warren County coach Michael Waurio said. "It just made him think of something outside of the match, I think. It just took him off his game, and once he got off he just couldn't get himself back into doing what he was supposed to be doing."
Stewart, who transferred from Skyline this year, said one of his teammates talked him into giving tennis a try last year, and he's really glad that he did.
"It's very, very fun," Stewart said. "It might get you angry when you mess up, but it's fun and relaxing just to come out here and hit, and it's very competitive.
"It kind of came natural to me, but I never thought I would be as good as I am today."
Stewart will play in the doubles competition today at Skyline, as will Barbour.
Barbour will also be playing with his Central teammates Monday at James Monroe in the Region 3A East tournament. Barbour said he's excited to play in the individual singles tournament as well.
"It's fun to be in the postseason -- nothing I really imagined, but I like it," Barbour said.
Contact Assistant Sports Editor Tommy Keeler at 540-465-5137 ext. 168, or firstname.lastname@example.org Follow on Twitter @tkeelernvd