MISSOULA — There's an emerging force in Montana junior tennis.
He's only 14 years old, but Rory Smith of Kalispell has the strokes and mental game of a much older player. The Glacier High School sophomore-to-be won three singles matches in State AA competition in May and on Friday sent notice that was just the tip of the iceberg.
Locked in a battle with Missoula Sentinel senior-to-be Cody Curtis, Smith rallied to win the Western Montana Open 18-and-under boys' singles title at Playfair Park. Curtis won a close first set, 6-4, then the super-steady Smith took over with a 6-0 win in the second set and a 10-4 triumph in the match tiebreaker.
Beyond winning, there was something about Smith's demeanor that made you believe the best is yet to come. While his opponent struggled with the heat, Smith gave the impression he could play all day in 90-degree weather.
"I go for lots of runs in my spare time and I play a lot out outdoors — I honestly love it so I'll stay out there as long as I can to get the wins," he told 406mtsports.com. "I've always liked warm weather. It feels like it's an asset."
Smith could have easily become discouraged after a first set in which he struggled to track down Curtis' laser forehands. On set point the top-seeded Curtis hit a 'tweener for a winner from near the service line and his smile afterwards reflected his state of mind.
But the wear and tear of an epic semifinal win in Thursday's afternoon heat caught up with the Sentinel standout, who took second in State AA doubles with partner Ethan Violette in May. Curtis complained of seeing spots after spotting Smith a 2-0 lead in the second set, then opted for a medical timeout.
The senior-to-be regrouped and appeared to be fine physically in the match tiebreaker. But Smith was not to be denied.
"You have to realize you have to go after every point, because one bad one could really throw things off," Smith said of his mindset in the match tiebreaker. "A couple double faults, a few loose points, it gets you back 5-love and it's hard to dig yourself out of that."
The tournament was Smith's first since May. He'll try to build on it for the rest of the summer.
"Just to come up and play the 18s is very fun," said Smith, who won a 15-player singles draw in the Eastern Montana Junior Open Level tourney in May in Billings. "It means a lot to win this tournament."
The boys' 16 singles final was an all-Missoula Hellgate affair. Colton Quirk beat Hamilton Smith in straight sets, 6-3, 6-3.
Quirk, a sophomore-to-be, has been playing a lot of tennis this summer. It shows in his results.
"I wanted to get better this summer and this is the only way to, keep playing," said the 15-year-old. "It's terrible in the heat sometimes. (Thursday) it was 92 and I was just dying. But you adjust by putting a lot of cold water on your head.
"I've been working on my serve, which is a lot better than it has been, so that was working today. And I was just being really consistent."
In co-ed 10 singles, Titan O'Hara of Lolo finished a perfect 4-0. In boys' 14 singles, Owen Sanford of Bozeman took top honors.
In girls' competition, Loyola Sacred Heart's Lauren Bodlovic and Melanie Benson earned runner-up honors in 18 doubles with a pair of strong performances. They won one contest in a match tiebreaker Thursday and nearly pulled off an upset in the title match Friday, pushing Stevi Parker of Billings and Madelyn Dibble of Spokane before dropping a 4-6, 6-2, 10-6 decision.
Bodlovic and Benson have both had their share of success in State B-C singles. They've dedicated this summer to improving on their doubles, with their sights set on a possible state championship as seniors in 2019.
"We both really wanted to do this," Bodlovic said, "and we feel like now is a good time to do it."
Benson feels she and Bodlovic complement one another with their strengths.
"Lauren and I are good friends and it transitions onto the court," Benson said. "We're good at communicating together. I like volleying and Lauren's ground strokes are really good."
In girls' 16 doubles, Berkley Ellis of Ronan and Qia Harlan of Polson took top honors with a pair of wins. Their closest match came against Bozeman's Hailey Buss and Nora Schrank, who fell in heartbreaking fashion, 7-5, 1-6, 11-9.
The girls' 18 singles title went to Kendall Kovick of Las Vegas with a 6-0, 6-0 win over Parker. Kovick, formerly of Missoula, also won the 16 singles final over Dibble, 6-1, 6-1. Schrank won the girls' 14 title.