A fast learner
In only his second year of playing tennis, GJ's Martinez headed to state
Matthew Martinez squeezes his racket with a confident grip, his eyes intense with concentration.
He’s ready and attacks the serve with a solid return. He has the look of a player who’s played the game for years.
But he hasn’t.
At 6-foot-7, Martinez towers over teammates and opponents alike. But he also shows a gangly awkwardness at times. Partly from his height and a little from his inexperience.
The Grand Junction senior is a bit of a novelty. In the realm of high school sports, where athletes seem to jump out of the crib and into a sport, Martinez isn’t a seasoned tennis player.
He took up the sport just last year.
It’s a decision that thrills him now.
“I picked up a racket once but that was like when I was 5,” said Martinez with a smile. “It was very challenging, because I could not get any basics down.”
That’s not too surprising. Most tennis players have mastered a smooth swing and powerful, accurate ground strokes way before high school.
So often, kids are molded to be an athlete, many with hopes of securing an athletic scholarship someday. Some become stars, collecting numerous awards and accolades.
But the truest goal of high school sports is to teach youngsters about fundamentals, work ethic, handling adversity and much more — including having fun.
Martinez is having a lot of fun since he turned in his shoulder pads and helmet as a sophomore and picked up a tennis racket last year.
“I was just done with football. I’d played football all my life, then my friend Matt (Miller) said ‘You should just come out and play tennis. It’s really fun, the coaches and everyone are really cool,’ ” he said.
Fun and cool — a powerful appeal.
Now Martinez is headed to Denver with his teammates to compete at the Class 5A state tennis tournament.
Martinez and his No. 4 doubles teammate, Joseph Hirschbuhl, qualified for state at last week’s regional tournament. Hirschbuhl is sophomore who didn’t start playing tennis until he was in high school.
No. 4 doubles is the learning level of high school tennis, reserved for players who are new to the sport or not quite good enough for the more competitive levels.
Martinez credits the “fantastic” coaching and the popular summer tennis league for helping him develop quickly.
He also admits that some of his friends were pretty baffled when he switched sports.
“A lot of them were really confused,” he said. “It’s such a big difference.”
It took time and work for Martinez to get comfortable with his new sport. His ground strokes started improving, his serve started finding the mark and his game grew both physically and mentally.
He said his height helped in his development.
“For me it was way easier, because the only thing I could rely on, since I’m really tall, is I could charge the net,” he said with a laugh.
Hirschbuhl offered a smile and agreed when asked what makes them good teammates.
“I’m quick on my feet and he’s 6-7,” he said. “We just have a good connection.”
Grand Junction coach Carol Elliott praised Martinez for his dedication and hard work. Even though he’s new to tennis, Elliott also called him one of the leaders on the team.
“I always liked being in the leadership position,” Martinez said.
As he developed his game through junior varsity matches and then varsity matches at No. 4 doubles, Martinez would let his mind think about the possibly of qualifying for state. But he made sure to temper his goals.
“There’s always been that thought, but I kept it in the back on my mind,” he said.
Then came the regional tournament when Martinez and Hirschbuhl lost the first set of their playback match.
It looked like the goal of state was done.
Martinez said it was the most exciting match he’s ever been part of but anxiety was winning out until the very end when they pulled out the three-set win.
“It was more frightening than exciting from my perspective,” he said with a chuckle. “But it was really cool, you could really feel the adrenaline.”
Since leaving the gridiron for the courts, Martinez has stockpiled a marathon of memories in two short years. Memories are the best things about playing high school sports.
Now, as a tennis player, he serves up a quick answer about leaving football.
“No, I don’t miss football at all,” he said. “This is very much a team, we pick each other up all the time.”
He admits that the game of football wasn’t fun anymore and he wanted to find a sport that was fun.
“If you don’t enjoy a sport, you’re not going to get better,” he said.
Tennis is a fun sport for Martinez and he’s headed to state.
Not a bad way to string together some great memories in his senior year.