COOS BAY — Eight months ago, Zach Otwinowski had never played tennis.
New to the area, he heard about the tennis program at the William J. Sweet Memorial Tennis Center, part of the Boys & Girls Club of Southwestern Oregon, and was interested in taking up the sport. Almost instantly, Otwinowski fell in love with tennis and the community surrounding it, and after a brief stay in the Bay Area will move to Sacramento to attend Rio Del Oro Tennis Academy.
“He found his calling,” his mother Katherine said. “If not for people like William Sweet putting their own money in the community and they give opportunities to the kids, kids like Ryan (Mahee) or Zach can find things they really like doing, which is good for them.”
Much of the 12-year-old’s growth as a player can be traced to his work at the Sweet Center. Katherine, supportive of her son’s newfound dream and ambitions, spent the nearly $200 per month for thrice weekly sessions — training Tuesday and Thursday and match play on Fridays — under Kylee Woodman, herself a product of the local tennis program.
The Boys & Girls Club also offers three-day camps, the next session starting next week and the summer’s third and final session starting is in mid-August, as well as free tennis Saturdays with coach Ian Bailey starting up again in October.
Otwinowski threw himself into the training, first light-heartedly then more seriously once his talent became more apparent.
This led to playing tournaments in Roseburg and Redding, Calif., eventually teaming up with Mahee for doubles matches some of the time.
“I think in the beginning he was a little more free and easy,” Woodman said. “Then when he realized, ‘Oh, I’m actually pretty good at this’ he started to take the stakes a little more to heart. And also reminding him that losses are healthy and that’s what make him better.”
Both Otwinowski and his mother credit the Boys & Girls Club tennis program for creating the love of tennis and community-like feel of the game.
For instance, Otwinowski was accepted to both Rio Del Oro and JMG Tennis Academy, but chose the former due to its more community-like feel.
“The community there is really cheerful and the main guy there says hi to everyone and knows everyone,” Otwinowski said. “When I went (to JMG) there was no atmosphere and it felt like a factory.”
That’s something Woodman focuses on. She has her students talk to each other about what they see each other doing, have them coach across instead of down.
It helps create an in-this-together atmosphere that Otwinowski sought out elsewhere.
“That’s something we try to cultivate,” Woodman said. “Kind of create that sense of trust in each other and respect. Coming from your own height level and things like that, it means more. And also the older community comes through and compliments the kids when they walk by. I think that’s really huge because they see these people who have been playing for decades saying, ‘Oh, that was really awesome,’ or, ‘You guys have improved so much.’ I think that kind of community has created some great tennis players.”
Otwinowski hopes to be one of those.
A former fencer, Otwinowski already had the nimble feet required for tennis, but he also had the patient, calculating mind necessary.
Fencing is about searching for openings, being patient and striking efficiently and effectively. In a sense, tennis is the same way. It requires thought and patience and execution. Otwinowski felt at home quickly.
“I like it because every opponent is different,” Otwinowski said. “It’s exciting to be on the court with them and trying to find a strategy to beat that opponent.”
As Otwinowski’s move to Sacramento suggests, he isn’t playing tennis for mere fun or to pass the time. He’s ambitious about playing the sport, with lofty goals already set for himself before his teen years.
He wants to be an internationally ranked tennis player.
“I want to be good at it,” he said. “And if I could not get to the Top 10, I’d at least like to be a tennis pro so I could teach other kids to get to their dream.”