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Backhanded compliment

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A strict fitness regimen and strong backhand have helped Peninsula High’s Connor Hance become one of the top junior players in the country

 

UCLA-bound Connor Hance led Peninsula High to its first boys tennis CIF championship since 2000. Photo by Ray Vidal

UCLA-bound Connor Hance led Peninsula High to its first boys tennis CIF championship since 2000. Photo by Ray Vidal

by Randy Angel

Facing match point against the top seed, up-and-coming tennis player Connor Hance was trying his best to dig himself out of a hole.

The 14-year-old had dropped the first set in the Asics Easter Bowl finals and, trailing 6-5 in the second set, was looking for a ray of hope.

He got it when John McNally, of Cincinnati, double faulted giving Hance the opportunity he needed. He scored the next two point to force a tiebreaker and proceeded to win championship with a 4-6, 7-6 (3), 6-4 victory.

“That definitely was a big moment in my career,” said Hance, now a 17-year-old senior at Peninsula High School. “It was nice to beat him because he later defeated me at the National Championships in Kalamazoo, Michigan.”

The 2013 Easter Bowl championship drew the attention of national coaches. American tennis greats who have competed in the Easter Bowl — Agassi, Austin, Capriati, Davenport, McEnroe, Roddick and Sampras — later became household names

Hance’s career on the tennis court has since flourished. The 5-foot-10, 160-pound right hander is ranked No. 21 in the nation in the Boys 18 Singles division and in April, became the first boys tennis player from Peninsula High to win the CIF singles division title at the prestigious Ojai Tournament.

The junior’s victory over Corona del Mar senior Bjorn Hoffmann helped Peninsula finish in a first-place tie with San Marino for the team title.

In May, Peninsula and San Marino would square off in the finals of the CIF-Southern Section Division 1 team championships. Hance led the Panthers to a 10-8 victory and Peninsula’s first CIF championship in boys tennis since 2000.

“My freshman year we were not close to being one of the top teams,” Hance said. “We worked hard and it paid off.”

Peninsula head coach Mike Hoeger said Hance has a style similar to 2012 Olympic gold medalist Andy Murray.

“He has a good serve and good wheels, but he has a world-class backhand,” Hoeger said. “Most players at this level pick on their opponent’s backhand but they can’t do that with Connor.”

Hoeger expects Hance to return for his senior season in hopes of winning the CIF Individual Singles title.

“Connor has meant a great deal to our program,” Hoeger said. “He had a lot of hype coming into high school. It was surprising to see what a team player he is. Having a No. 1 player be such a team player is a blessing. He’s been a great role model for other players.”

Hance said his short-term goals are to play well in tournaments, keep improving his game and next spring help Peninsula win back-to-back CIF championships while claiming the elusive CIF Individual Singles title.

“It’s different playing for a team. There’s more pressure because all of your teammates are counting on you,” Hance explained. ““I work well with coach Hoeger. He accommodates me so I can play in other tournaments, letting me know when he needs me for important high school matches.”

Hance said the two toughest opponents he faced this year have been Hoffman, who won the CIF Individual title, and Alex Kuperstein of Palm Desert, who defeated Hance in the semifinals.

Hance comes from a tennis family.

His father, Ken, has been involved in tennis in the South Bay since 1976 and is Director of Junior Tennis at the Peninsula Racquet Club.

Connor’s mother, Courtney has been teaching tennis for more than 20 years and was the No. 1 player at UC Irvine all four years. She and Ken founded South Bay Tennis Club 19 years ago and it became a second home for their four children.

“I think the kids have spent more time at the club than in our own home,” Courtney quipped. Fortunately, they all love tennis.”

Connor feels his dad has had the biggest influence on his tennis career

‘He taught me how to play tennis and coached me every day,,” Connor said. “Also, Eric Basica, whom I’ve been working with since I was 12.”

“Connor came to work with us as soon as he was allowed the leave the hospital after his birth,” Ken said. “He’s had a tennis racket in his hand since two years old. I worked with him every day until he was about 16, when he took on other coaches. Now we’re working together again fine tuning his game.”

When Connor was 5-years-old, he was cast as the son of tennis greats Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf in a television commercial.

“It ran during Wimbledon and US Open so he had his five seconds of fame,” Ken recalled. “He did other commercials until about 8 or 9, but tennis has always been his passion.”

Connor began playing in tournaments when he was 6 years old and by the age of 10 started to take the sport seriously.

“I always knew I’d be a tennis player,” Hance said. “When I was 12 I won the National Clay Court Championships and I was on my way.”

Along with a devastating backhand, Hance feels one of his strengths is his ability to wear down his opponent.

“Connor has grit and even at a young age, his work ethic and discipline were exceptional,” Courtney said of her son. “He’s not the tallest or best athlete on the court, but he’s scrappy and in better shape than most other players.”

In June, at the USTA SoCal Jr. Sectional Championships, a sore wrist forced Hance to withdraw from the tournament after winning his first four matches. Later that night, Courtney heard a noise coming from the street.

“I looked out the window and saw Connor running around cones in the middle of the street,” Courtney said. “He told me ’Just because my wrist is hurt, I have to stay in shape.’”

The nutrition-conscious Hance spends three to five hours each day on the court but his workout does not end there.

After returning home from practice, Hance will either run or drive to the beach where he works in the sand on movement, quickness and sprints.

Many people believe that strong arms and shoulders are important in tennis but it’s quickness and strength in your legs that will help you succeed on the court,” Hance said. ”I also work on my core two to three times a week. I don’t lift weights because it constricts muscle movement, which is vital to tennis players.”

Hance is coming off a win at the Manhattan Beach Tennis Open where he played “just for fun” with friend Joseph Rotheram, of Manhattan Beach. The pair captured the Men’s Open Doubles championship.

As the level of competition increases, Hance has learned to cope with pressure, finding something in the match to focus on so nerves don’t get the best of him.

“I’m used to pressure. I’ve learned to stay loose in big point situations,” Hance said. “If you get nervous, you tend to tense up. I feel the preparation I put in gives me the confidence to handle any situation in a match.”

Tennis has provided Hance the opportunity to travel while playing in tournaments across the country.

“I least like to play in Florida,” Hance said “I really like Kalamazoo, not only because it’s the National Championships, but because it has the best sponsors and hospitality. I also enjoyed playing in Louisiana. Three other boys and myself got to stay with a host family in this beautiful mansion. Ojai is also a great tournament. It is highly competitive and the entire town comes out to support the tournament.”

Hance will return to Kalamazoo for the Boys 18s National Championships Aug. 5-14. He said the highlight of his career came two years ago when he reached the finals in the 16s tournament at Kalamazoo.

He’ll later represent Southern California at the Junior Team Tennis National Championships in South Carolina Oct 20-23, where regions compete for the title.

Hance hopes the stiff competition will help prepare him for his college career at UCLA. The Bruin head coach is Billy Martin, a 1974 graduate of Palos Verdes High School who won the NCAA Singles championship in 1975 before turning pro.

Helping UCLA win an NCAA championship is among Hance’s long-term goals

“I plan to focus on college and work my way up in the lineup,” Hance said. “I eventually want to have a professional tennis career and, of course, it’s every player’s dream to win a Grand Slam or be in the Olympics.”

Numerous universities were interested in Hance, including Stanford and USC, but he chose UCLA because of its proximity and balance of athletics and academics.

“I was highly ranked at the age of 14 and knew if I maintained that level, I could pick almost any school I wanted to attend,” said.”It’s a beautiful campus and close to home so my family and friends can come watch me play.”

Free time is rare for Hance but he takes advantage of it when it occurs, hanging out with friends or playing guitar.

“I took up guitar a year ago and can actually play songs now,” Hance said. “I also like to surf, which I’ve been doing a lot of this summer. It really loosens up the shoulders and improves my range of motion.”

Hance said his mother, Courtney, has been the biggest overall influence in his life. He enjoys the fact that older sister Kenadi, 19, younger sister Kimmi, 13, and brother Keaton, 8, all love tennis.

“My mom is very outgoing so we have similar personalities. She’s also very funny,” Hance said. “Kenadi and I are so close in age that we’ve had a sibling rivalry for many years. Playing tennis, we were both similar at levels in our respective age groups. When I got taller and stronger, I caught up to her but she still thinks she’s better than me.”

Kenadi, like Connor, was a CIF champion at Peninsula High. As a freshman at the University of Washington last fall, she finished second on the team with 11 dual match wins in singles. She also was a five-time USTA National Champion.

The Palos Verdes Peninsula has been a breeding ground for tennis players, including greats of the game Tracy Austin, Pete Sampras and Lindsay Davenport. Hance hopes one day to join that list.