Oatney flourishes at top spot
Not only has Ben Oatney made a smooth transition going from playing doubles to singles for the Centennial High School boys tennis team this spring, his play has exceeded the expectations of coach Barbara Stevenson.
The junior played first doubles last season but switched to singles this year after the Stars lost their top three singles players from a year ago to graduation. He earned the team's No. 1 singles spot, where he won 13 of his first 15 matches.
"Ben didn't know much about tennis when he showed up to his first practice last year, and I never would have expected him to be this good in just his second season," Stevenson said. "Last year, I had to teach him the basics of the game and he enjoyed the sport and improved pretty quickly. Ben's a natural athlete and a quick learner, but to see him play this well at first singles has been kind of amazing."
Oatney even has surprised himself to a degree. He won the City League championship at first singles by going 5-0 in the league tournament held April 30 at Columbus South and May 2 at Whetstone.
"City League schools aren't known for having strong tennis, but it's pretty nuts that I've done this well with such little playing experience and never having taken a tennis lesson before," said Oatney, whose team headed into the week at 8-2 overall and 7-1 in the City League and will play Friday, May 10, at Walnut Ridge. "Coming back to the team this spring, I knew a couple of other guys on our team had been playing a lot of tennis, so I went in thinking it would be good if I could play on any of the singles courts.
"I wasn't sure how I would do at first singles, but I've been able to beat a couple of guys who have played longer than I have and who have better fundamentals than me, so I'm happy with how I've played."
Oatney's interest in tennis began after his parents, Brad and Ellen, started taking private lessons from Stevenson. However, he didn't try out for the team until his sophomore year after being recruited by 2012 graduate Sam Zafris.
Despite being new to tennis and lacking some of the sport's fundamental skills, Oatney and senior Slobodan Zecevic went undefeated at first doubles in league matches last season.
The duo went 2-1 in the City League Tournament a year ago, losing to eventual champions Marcos Gasca and Alex Phin of Columbus West 6-3, 6-4 in a semifinal, to earn first-team all-league honors.
"Neither Ben nor Slobodan had played doubles before, but they are two of the best natural athletes I've coached and they were able to win matches with the most basic skills," Stevenson said.
"Ben's so athletic. He's able to keep hitting the ball back no matter what you hit at him. And now that's he's improved his strokes and learned to ace people with his serve, he's even more difficult to beat as a single player."
Oatney dedicated much of his time last summer to the sport. He said he played with his father and his friends an average of three times a week.
During that time, he also became a student of the game, improving the technique of his serve and backhand and learning when to slice or lob his shots.
"Even though I haven't taken any tennis lessons, my parents have relayed what they learned in their lessons to me," Oatney said. "I knew I was getting better because I used to never be able to beat my dad and now I beat him all the time."
Tennis isn't Oatney's only extracurricular activity. He also spends time creating music -- he plays the piano, guitar, bass guitar, drums and flute -- and has been involved with Centennial's theater department.
"I love playing tennis and basketball, but music is my main thing," Oatney said. "I used to dream of being a rock star, but lately I've been playing a lot of hip hop and jazz. It's hard to make it in music and I'm not sure what I want to try to do for a living quite yet. But over the next years, I'm going to do the best I can in tennis and make sure I keep having fun with it."