Kellen Bates is 14 years old and favored to win the Class AA boys' singles tennis title in Bozeman this coming weekend.
The Kalispell Glacier freshman is one of the region's top-ranked players in the 16-year-old division of the USTA juniors circuit. Bates won three matches at a sectional tournament in Las Vegas as recently as March. He won the 18-and-under singles title at the Western Montana Junior Open last July.
Sure, Bates can play tennis with the older boys, but he can't drive with them. He leaves that duty to his big sister, Liana, who also plays tennis for the Wolfpack.
"I can't drive yet. I'm too young for that," said Bates, who turns 15 in June. "So, she's my chauffeur for now."
The younger of the two Bates, who stands 6-foot, is certainly cruising this spring. He's unbeaten in at least 20 matches. In fact, he hasn't dropped a set yet, including a pair of victories over two-time defending State AA singles champion Eric Braun of Missoula Hellgate. Bates beat Braun 6-2, 6-4 the first time and 6-1, 6-1 in the finals of the Helena Invite on April 24.
The Northern AA divisional champ took a break last week to talk with the Missoulian about his game, his expectations for state and his sister Liana, who is going for a singles title on the girls' side.
Q: What is your USTA ranking?
A: Right now, in Intermountain play, I would say in the 16s I'm about in the 20s. As for the 14s ... well, I haven't played in the 14s in a long time. I'm probably in the 20s for the 14s too.
Q: How'd you do at that tournament in Vegas?
A: I did pretty good. I would say it was definitely my best 16s tournament so far. I took out a couple of higher seeds, I think. It's hard to say what I got, maybe about 12th, which is pretty good for me. Especially when I was playing up an age group.
Q: You haven't lost a set all season. Is it difficult to keep that streak going?
A: I don't go out on the court and think, ‘Hey, let's not lose a set.' I just go out there to play tennis. I want to have fun. If the results come, then that's great.
Q: You've beaten Eric Braun twice. How's that make you feel?
A: It makes me feel like all the work I've put into my tennis game is starting to pay off. It's great to be able to beat Eric, but it's not like I beat Eric and call it quits for all my other goals in tennis. I think being a state champion would be bigger than beating Eric in a regular-season match, and I still have to do that.
Q: Now that Braun switched to doubles, do you anticipate seeing any more new faces in the boys' singles draw at state?
A: I've seen most all of the faces in the No. 1 singles that will be contenders at state. (Hellgate's) Lee Fritsen will be one that I play. He has a good shot. Thomas Staffileno from Billings, I played him and he's one of the better ones.
Q: Are you disappointed you won't get to play Braun in the state tournament?
A: I'm not sure if disappointed is the right word. It'd be awesome to play him in the state final. It'd be cool to be able to play somebody like that, the two-time defending state champ, in the state championship, but I guess that's not going to happen. I don't look at it as a big deal. Either way my goal is to win a state championship.
Q: How much would it mean to you if your sister Liana won state too?
A: It'd mean a lot to me if we were both able to win state. That would be pretty awesome. It'd be cool to have two state champions under the same roof. We could always be like, ‘Remember 2010?' That'd be pretty cool. She's been working really hard the last two years to get to this point. (Great Falls') Elly Crum is one big obstacle in her way, but she's been working hard, so if she got over that it'd be awesome.
Q: Do you and your sister have any sibling rivalries?
A: I guess so. I don't know, maybe just regular sibling rivalries like who gets the remote and stuff like that. It's your average brother vs. sister stuff.
Q: What is your favorite subject in school?
A: I don't know. I wouldn't say I have a favorite. I've always liked P.E. a little bit more. I like to get out and be active. I don't like sitting around in a classroom all day.
Q: Where is your favorite place to play tennis?
A: I've played tennis in a lot of places, especially in Las Vegas and I like a lot of those places. But around (Montana) I like the Summitt in Kalispell. That's probably one of my favorite places to play. It's home.
Q: Other than tennis, do you have another favorite sport(s)?
A: Soccer. I used to play some last spring for a select team. But then I started focusing more on my tennis game. I used to play everything, like baseball, but I stopped playing those awhile ago.
Q: How about on TV?
A: I like watching all sports. Sometimes I get a little bored with tennis because I watch it so much, but whenever it comes on it seems like I'll watch it.