Holden Smith’s level of play was never in question.
Rather, the only question mark the Owen J. Roberts junior faced was regaining love for the sport he had previously committed his life to.
Smith returned to Owen J. Roberts last fall after spending the previous two years training full time at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Md., chasing the highest levels of tennis.
Smith turned in the solitary grind of full-time academy training for a more traditional schooling experience. In joining the Wildcats’ team, he found the joy in tennis again with valued teammates by his side.
“It was such a great experience,” Smith said of playing on the OJR team this spring. “Being alone a lot and just playing tournaments, it was just for me. Having tennis be such an individual sort, it was definitely tough at times. Being with the team and having that aspect, it’s definitely something you don’t normally get in tennis so it was great to have this year.”
Smith was superb individually in singles by winning the Pioneer Athletic Conference singles tournament and going 16-0 for the season. He was equally impactful in doubles as he paired with senior Brandon Miller to win the PAC doubles tournament and advance to the quarterfinals of the District 1-AAA tournament.
“It was really great,” Smith said. “Playing with Brandon was a lot of fun, especially at districts. Wining PACs – he hadn’t won (a league tournament) at all in his high school career – so to have his last chance to win with me and end on that high note was really special.”
Smith’s entire spring season seemed to be a high note, capped by his selection as Mercury All-Area Boys Tennis Player of the Year.
He didn’t drop a set in singles to a league opponent and rolled to the league singles title as the No. 1 seed, downing Phoenixville’s Mike Ellis 6-2, 6-2 in the final. That was where his singles season ended as he did not compete in the District 1-AAA singles tournament due to his participation on the OJR team in the DECA business competition, held in Anaheim, Calif.
In doubles, Smith and Miller edged Methacton’s Subhanik Purkayastha and Alan Shen 7-6 (4), 6-4 to win the PAC doubles title. At districts, the No. 8 seeds advanced through two rounds before pushing the top seeded Upper Dublin duo of Bryan Szyana and Danny Katz to three sets before falling 4-6, 6-2, 6-0 in the quarterfinals.
What a turnaround over the past year it was for Smith, who went from full-time training to not playing at all from last July through December.
Smith found his greatest success in his early days at the Junior Tennis Champions Center, ascending to No. 32 in the country as a 14-year-old.
“I did love it right away. I made a lot of friends right away and the training was really good. I started doing well in tournaments pretty soon after I started training there and my level got higher quickly,” he said.
As the competition stiffened and the results became less favorable, the mental toll starting hitting Smith.
“It became tough expectation-wise. I put a lot of pressure on myself to do better instead of just going out and doing the best I could do. I was focused on winning and losing,” he said. “When I started playing high level, international tournaments and I started losing more than I was used to it messed with my confidence a lot.”
He needed a break and a returned home to attend Owen J. – he grew up in the OJR school district and attended through 8th grade. Smith was the ‘new kid’ again for a short time, but quickly remade friends.
His nature came in handy as tennis season rolled around the Wildcats – with the arrival of their new No. 1 singles player – set their sights on a PAC team title.
“I tried to bring a lot of people out on the weekends just to hit. We felt like this year we really had a chance to do well. When we started out the season 5-0, we started doing a lot of weekend practices and I would text our varsity players to tell them to come out,” he said.
Smith, who has taught junior players for three years and is spending this summer teaching at High Performance Tennis Academy in Bala Cynwyd, would help conduct practice even.
“I’ve been coaching on the youth level for a while and I just felt like everyone on the team was so eager to learn and get better that they could really benefit from it,” Smith said. “Even if we didn’t end up winning PACs this season, it was going to help them overall and for next season.”
In his hiatus, Smith realized there are different ways to get the job done on the tennis court. He may have previously been the prototypical baseline blaster that proliferates the modern game, but that isn’t the player who showed up to PAC courts this spring. All the variety of tennis shots were on display in Smith, consistent groundstrokes from both wings, all-court ability and a pinpoint serve befitting of his long, thin frame.
“I think I have a new attitude with it. When I came back I realized there were so many other ways I could win points than just hitting winners from the baseline,” Smith said. ““Being able to mix up my shots – serving and volleying, chipping and charging – has made it a lot more enjoyable for me. I’m trying to have fun instead of focusing on wins and losses, just going out and trying my hardest every time. I’ve started playing USTA tournaments again because my overall goal is to play college tennis because I feel like it would be such a good experience.”
But first another season of high school tennis with the OJR team, an experience Smith appreciates more than almost anyone.