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Youth is serving up aces and wins for Hunter

SHARE Youth is serving up aces and wins for Hunter

WEST VALLEY CITY — There are probably a few high school tennis players in Region 3 who wish Nittaya Phonharath would go pick on somebody her own age.

Getting aced by a girl who's closer to elementary school than college can't exactly be fun.

But that's precisely what the 14-year-old, who still goes to junior high school, has done to her mostly older competition this year.

Not surprisingly, Phonharath, who plays for Hunter High, is the heavy favorite to continue her winning ways in league play today and Thursday at the Region 3 tournament at the Oquirrh Park Fitness Center courts in Kearns.

Judging her success so far, the outcome shouldn't be in doubt. Phonharath went 10-0 against all the other No. 1 singles opponents from the west-side 5A league, which also includes Bingham, Copper Hills, Kearns, Riverton and West Jordan.

"It wasn't even close," said Hunter coach Bridget Bolland.

Phonharath didn't lose a set, gave out a whole lot of tennis love (zero wins for foes) and only had one sorta, kinda close match. That came against West Jordan's Allison Long, and Phonharath still won 6-4, 6-2.

In the local summer tournament scene, Phonharath played in a ton of events and racked up enough points to earn a No. 2 ranking in the state for 16 singles. She pointed out that a lot of the state's best girls, however, often play in regional and national tourneys, so that ranking might not quite be accurate.

Still, that's not too shabby for a ninth-grader who's only real tennis lessons have come from her dad, Phonesavanh. And he's more father pro than tennis pro. The Laotian's tennis background includes simply learning how to play the game after coming to the United States as a refugee in the 1990s.

Though Bolland is usually on hand to offer some tips, Phonesavanh brings his daughter to practice every day after school. Since the other Hunter girls aren't quite up to her skill level, he usually volleys with her. Nittaya (pronounced nit-ee-uh) also hits around with her 12-year-old brother while her 4-year-old sister shags balls.

Her mom also plays tennis, but she works during the day. Her dad works the night shift, so the set-up works out great for him — and for her, of course.

Phonharath's power game is what's really remarkable for her age. Her serve and forehand are strong, her dad/coach said. Bolland says she is strong all-around with "good form, good technique."

Even better than that, Phonharath has a great attitude and work ethic. She might be the youngest player on the team, but she's the role model.

"She's dedicated. She doesn't blow off practice," Bolland said. "She shows up for practice without fail and a lot of the other girls don't ... I wish more girls had that drive and dedication."

Phonharath has had fun playing alongside the older girls. They often go to Subway after practice and get along well. She even offers tips and has helped lift her teammates' play.

"It's really fun," she said. "A lot of them are my friends."

Her favorite tennis player is Maria Sharapova, but Phonharath's ultimate tennis goal is to make it the collegiate level. That is, of course, after she enrolls in and graduates from high school.

"It's up to her," her father/coach said. "She's got what it takes. It depends on how far she wants to go and how hard she wants to train."

But first things first. After the Region 3 tournament, she's really excited to test her skills against the classification's other talent she hasn't faced for a while when the 5A meet takes place at Liberty Park from Oct. 4-6.

"I'm looking forward to state," she said. "There are some girls that are really good that I haven't beat yet."

E-mail: jody@desnews.com