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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, February 18, 2010

Hawaii teens show they can compete with nation's best

 •  Sanders, Johnson claim national titles

By Ann Miller
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Island Pacific Academy senior Matthew Westmoreland nearly beat the top seed at the USTA National Open.

KARL WATADA | Courtesy photo

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Robin Kiyabu

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WAIPAHU The seventh annual USTA Boys' and Girls' 18s National Open opened with a mind-boggling 128 matches last Saturday at Patsy T. Mink CORP Tennis Complex. By the time the red dust kicked up by 128 of the country's finest juniors cleared yesterday, a few Hawai'i players were looking much further into the future.

Island Pacific Academy senior Matthew Westmoreland and Punahou junior Robin Kiyabu were still playing Tuesday. Westmoreland, who has won the last two Interscholastic League of Honolulu titles, was still in the main draw Monday and two points from upsetting top-seeded Eric Johnson in the quarterfinals. Johnson went on to win the boys title.

"I thought I played really well this week," said Westmoreland, "probably" heading for Texas A&M in the fall. "In the beginning it was a little bit shaky. I was just trying to find the rhythm. Then, against the No. 1 seed, I had to show up and I did. I had a tight one with him.

"I learned I could compete with anyone. Some of these guys are in the Top 50, Top 20 in the nation. I can compete with them. Maybe take them sometimes."

Westmoreland is still desperately seeking his first state high school championship. If he can do it, clearly so can others. Jared Spiker, the reigning state champion, won four rounds in the consolation draw here. Kona's Sayo Tsukamoto had the best showing of the girls, winning three consolation rounds.

Johnson, one of several Northern Californians who went deep into the draw at CORP, is ranked 24th in USTA Boys 18s. He won the prestigious Copper Bowl title last month and two ITF World Junior Circuit championships last year.

Because of Hawai'i's isolation, Westmoreland's opportunities are much rarer and his resume much more condensed. He is ranked 78th nationally, good enough for a No. 7 seed here. He was sixth at last year's Copper Bowl and shared a doubles championship at the USTA/Nike Summer Jr. Sectional Championships last June.

He also is immensely animated and fun to watch, particularly when he is down. That didn't happen early, as Westmoreland swept his first three opponents, never allowing them more than three games. But against Johnson, and sixth-seeded Hunter Nicholas in the consolation draw Tuesday, Westmoreland dropped into deep holes against their huge games and fought his way back.

The 18-year-old has an all-court game with tons of potential, but he saved seven match points the last two days by sheer force of will.

"Matt is a fighter," said Kiyabu, 17. "When he's down he tries so hard. It seems impossible to keep him down."

Kiyabu is 6 feet 1 and an extremely lean 150 pounds. He admitted his body simply gave out in Tuesday's consolation quarterfinal his eighth match in four days, with three tiebreaker wins. A year earlier, he lost his opening singles and doubles matches and never had a chance to get tired.

"This was a breakthrough tournament for me," Kiyabu said. "I've never been able to keep up with these kids. They've always had that edge. Since they come from the Mainland they compete more. They know how to play. It was a good step for me."

Kiyabu is 162nd nationally, and was seeded 14th. He felt his game improved each day, peaking Monday before his left arm finally gave out. Westmoreland describes Kiyabu's strength as his versatility. "He's hard to break down and can hit some pretty amazing shots."

They both believe one of their greatest assets over the last week was simply being able to stay home to see what they are up against as they look for a college scholarship. Both are comfortable at CORP in more ways than one, and beyond the idyllic weather the nationals enjoyed.

"This environment gives me an advantage," Kiyabu said. "I know these courts. There are people cheering for me. And I can see how the heat is burning some of these kids out, with all the cramping and injuries and stuff."

Westmoreland and Kiyabu say their focus now is high school tennis. Both know the next step college tennis is a whole new level.

"Those guys are huge, gigantic," Westmoreland said. "I need to beef up."

That's what having the nationals here was all about for the 22 Hawai'i players who participated.