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Posted June 19, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Nguyen dominates after switching to tennis


Sherando’s Kaleb Nguyen won the Northwestern District singles title in his first year of competing in high school tennis. Rich Cooley/Daily

Sherando's top singles player leaves soccer behind, captures district title as sophomore

By Tommy Keeler Jr. - tkeeler@nvdaily.com

STEPHENS CITY -- During a United States Tennis Association tournament match on April 4 in Newport News, Kaleb Nguyen broke his thumb as he braced himself sliding to hit a shot. Nguyen didn't realize until a few days later that his thumb was broken, leaving his status for the high school season questionable.

Nguyen didn't give up, and in the end the injury helped improve his game.

"I figured I might as well give it a try and try to keep playing," Nguyen said. "It took away one of my strengths -- my backhand -- but it helped me develop a more well-rounded game."

Nguyen has always loved hitting his flat two-handed backhand. With the thumb injury he had to switch to a one-handed slice backhand, which he had never used before.
Nguyen worked with Winchester Country Club Director of Tennis Jim Scott and his teammates to ease the transition.

"I took about two lessons a week for about a month to try and get it down," Nguyen said. "I always knew I could pick things up fast, but I honestly didn't think I would be able to play with just a slice. I figured out different ways to beat my opponents. I sized them up and played to their weaknesses and used my strengths."

Nguyen, The Northern Virginia Daily's Boys Tennis Player of the Year, didn't miss a beat while he had his hand in a cast. He continued to dominate opponents with his new, more dangerous strokes.

The Sherando sophomore went on to lead the Warriors to the Region II finals, and he advanced to the regional finals in both the singles and doubles individual competitions.

"I think we had a really good year," Nguyen said. "I feel like each of us improved in some way. I feel like our doubles was the strongest part of our team. Coming back from 4-2 down against Handley gave us a lot of confidence going into the next Handley match and into regions."

Nguyen, who played JV soccer for Sherando as a freshman, almost didn't play tennis this season. His love of both soccer and tennis weighed heavily on his mind during the offseason and it wasn't until a week before practice started that he finally made up his mind.

"It was probably one of the hardest [decisions] I've ever had to make," Nguyen said. "It was hard, but I know I made the right decision playing tennis. I feel like I got better as the season went on.

"I've grown to love tennis a little more. It's my main focus until college."

Early in the season Nguyen lost to Handley's John Adams, but didn't get to face him when the two teams met again. Nguyen then won a close match to help the Warriors win the district tournament title.

A day later, Nguyen and Adams met again in a four-hour, 15-minute marathon for the district's individual singles title. In the end, Nguyen pulled out a 7-6, 5-7, 7-6 win for the championship.

"John's a great player," Nguyen said. "He fought his hardest and I fought my hardest. It could've gone either way, but I felt like I was a little more focused through the injuries we both had. I came out on top. It felt good. It gave me a little more confidence heading into the regional tournament."

Nguyen started playing tennis when he was 10. In his first tournament he won the Stonebrook Open, held at Stonebrook Racquet and Fitness Club.

In another Stonebrook tournament he beat James Wood's Thomas Wilson in a three-hour match. Wilson, a senior who played No. 1 singles this year at James Wood, is a few years older and Nguyen said the win gave him added confidence at an early age.

Since then Nguyen's game has continued to develop. He has a powerful serve and groundstrokes, but he said his biggest improvement in his game has been the mental side, where he's worked with Scott. In the offseason Nguyen is planning to work with a trainer at Stonebrook to increase his strength and add velocity to his serve.

Nguyen plays in USTA tournaments throughout the year and is currently 41st in the Mid-Atlantic 16-and-under rankings. His goal is to eventually reach the top 10 and earn a D-1 scholarship.

There's no doubt that Nguyen will again opt for the hardcourts over the pitch next spring, where he will set his sights on a state title. Nguyen has played with former area individual singles state champions such as Handley's Matt Stillwagon and Alex Funkhouser, as well as state semifinalist Michael Milanov.

"They're a big inspiration," Nguyen said. "They really help me. You can't get better unless you compete with people better than you."

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