The smallest spark can sometimes ignite the furnace of dominance.
Four years ago, before his freshman tennis season at Downingtown East, Michael Dickson wasn’t happy with his forehand, or his game. The talent was there, the results too often were not. His return shots were lofty, elevated; a ball sitting on tee, if you will, waiting to be smacked into oblivion.
Dickson changed his grip and his game took off.
Dickson’s ensuing ace dominance culminated in May, at Hershey Racquet Club, with a second consecutive PIAA Class 3A singles title. Not only did that accomplishment put Dickson in rarefied air, it marked a second straight undefeated season and a third consecutive state finals appearance. Dickson closed his scholastic career on a 46-0 run — his final scholastic loss was in May of 2015 in the state final, as a sophomore, to Chad Kissell of Greater Latrobe.
Naturally, Dickson is a slam dunk choice as the 2017 Daily Local News All-Area Boys Tennis Player of the Year, for a second consecutive time.
The spark ignited quietly, in the summer of 2013, with a change in the way Dickson held his racquet.
“I changed my forehand completely,” Dickson said. “I used to have an extreme Western grip, which means I could not hit for power, like at all. It would sit up for the opponent to tee off on. When I fixed it, it got better. It was OK freshman and sophomore year, but by my junior year it was more ‘polished’, I guess is the word for it. It took me an entire summer to try and figure it out.
“I’d say it’s semi-Western now. I moved it a little bit. It’s in between an Eastern and a semi-Western grip.”
Dickson also toned down a hyper-critical approach. A self-confessed hothead when he was younger, he discovered along the way that beating yourself up on the court for bad shots was counterproductive.
“It was never towards other people, it was towards myself,” said Dickson, who will play Division I tennis at Butler University in Indiana. “Getting mad at myself for shots I thought I should have made. Gradual maturity definitely had something to do with it, but I realized that when you get mad at shots, it really doesn’t help you. Most of the time, unless you’re John McEnroe, when you get mad at yourself you end up losing the next point. I always knew that, but I just had to actually do it.”
A new grip and a changed mental approach sent Downingtown East’s ace into the pantheon of schoolboy tennis. Only North Penn’s Cliff Nguyen (1997, ‘99-2000) has won three state singles titles since the PIAA split tennis into two classifications 20 years ago; Dickson joins four others to win it twice. In the modern era, only he and Nguyen have appeared in three singles finals.
“It’s a great honor to be in that (company), because there are so many great players who’ve gone through the state of Pennsylvania,” he said. “It’s one of the best. I’m happy I get to be on that list. I’m glad I was able to gather enough focus and concentration, with a little luck along the way.”
If recuperative powers falls under the category of “luck”, so be it. In November, Dickson hurt his right ankle playing on clay in a Florida tournament. The mishap required surgery. It was his second major injury in three years.
“I went for a ball and I slid,” Dickson said. “I slid toward the fence and hit a little pocket of clay. My ankle turned and I ended up pushing off of it while the ankle was turned. I had split tear of (a tendon). There was no damage to joint, but they had to stitch up the tear.”
Incredibly, Dickson didn’t miss a beat.
“I started playing again by February,” he said. “I knew it was going to be OK. You just have to kind of get over it. It’s actually stronger now than it was before the surgery.”
Dickson had to run through Lower Merion talent in Hershey to see things through. This season, he defeated promising freshman Matt Robinson in the title match. Earlier in the day, it was foil and fellow senior Matt Chen.
Chen was Dickson’s semifinal opponent at Hershey, and the Lower Merion senior came closest to derailing the train. After winning the first set 6-3, Dickson dropped the middle frame by a 6-2 count. All the momentum appeared to be gathering on the other side of the net.
That’s when Dickson’s steely focus kicked into gear. He rallied to close Chen out, 6-3, to reach the state championship match for a third straight campaign.
“We always find a way to play each other, in any shape or form, in every tournament we both play, and it’s outside of high school, too,” Dickson said with a chuckle. “He’s a very good player and he’s annoying to play. He’s gets to every ball. If he doesn’t make unforced errors, he becomes so much harder to beat.
“It’s fun playing him, but it gets frustrating at times. You think you hit a good shot and he hits a better one.”
But Dickson’s ability to lock down — a skill proportional to his rising profile during the duration of his high school career — saw him to the finish line.
“It kind of goes back to everyone playing 110-percent against you,’ Dickson said. “I learned that, especially as I kept getting better and better. So you have to go into a match expecting that. I always try to prepare myself mentally for that, so I wouldn’t take anyone lightly.”