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North Tonawanda High School freshman has talent to be tennis prodigy

How good can he be? That’s the central question surrounding Greg Hastings, a tennis player for North Tonawanda High School. But it’s also true about any high school natural who appears to have a chance to be something very special.

No one knows the answer yet.

“I just try to do my best every time I set foot on the court,” Hastings said. “Win or lose, I’m happy because I like the game.”

Hastings’ best already is really good. He’s only a freshman, but he was one of three players from Section VI to reach last year’s state championships in Flushing Meadow. Hastings is 12-0 this season, and 40-0 lifetime in the Niagara Frontier League.

“He’s special, and not just because he’s a great player,” Lumberjacks coach John LeMar said. “He’s part of a great family. I’ve been in tennis circles for 25 years, on top of me playing for years. They are an A-plus family, and he’s an A-plus kid. I’ve seen a lot of kids who are top players, but they are not quite as genuine and good-natured as Greg is. Plus, he’s a hard worker. So he’s really unique.”

Good things lie ahead. But how good? How high is up? People have been wondering that for years.

Hastings’ story begins even before he entered school as a tot. His mom showed him the game, and he took to it immediately.

“I’m a phys ed teacher,” LeMar said. “Greg went to elementary school where I taught. So I knew his family. His cousin played tennis for another team in the league, so you’ve got that connection.

“When Sportsplex,” a facility in North Tonawanda, “was open for tennis, Greg would come over. He was on the radar from a young age, especially because he loved tennis. He would talk about it, and he genuinely loved the sport. I knew how much he loved tennis in third, fourth grade.”

That meant when Hastings was in fifth and sixth grade, LeMar already could see him playing on the North Tonawanda team. The only question became how to estimate time of arrival on the varsity. It can be a big decision to put a seventh-grader in with the big kids. LeMar liked Hastings’ chances, and threw him off the proverbial dock into the water.

“Because I saw him compete against the other kids, I knew he had a much better chance than other seventh-graders of competing against kids much older, and not become mentally frustrated,” he said. “He did it. In seventh grade, he went 14-0 – and in second singles. I had a very good feeling that he could handle it.”

Hastings took another step forward as an eighth-grader. He was 14-0 in the Niagara Frontier League, but fell in the semifinals of the Section VI tournament to Michael Kessler of Williamsville North. That meant Hastings needed to defeat Ramzi Tahok of City Honors to reach the state tournament. After losing the first set, 3-6, Hastings took the next two sets, 6-3, 6-3.

“I was playing the match and I just thought, ‘If I win this, I’m going to New York City,’ ” Hastings said.

The whole family headed to New York; Greg’s older sister was promised a trip to a Broadway show as an inducement to come along. The eighth-grader found himself playing on the same courts that the world’s best play on during the United States Open – even if the main stadium court was under construction.

“It was a shocker,” Hastings said about the experience. “I came in with an open mind. I just wanted to have fun.”

Hastings won his first-round match in straight sets, but ran into Matthew Gamble – the top seed − in the second round. Gamble, then a junior from Webster Schroeder High School near Rochester, beat Hastings, 6-2, 6-0. Gamble went on to win his second straight state title; he will attend Notre Dame in the fall.

When Hastings arrived for high school last fall, he had a surprise for opponents as he went above six feet in height.

“This year was his biggest growth spurt,” LeMar said. “All the other coaches in the Niagara Frontier League were like, ‘We don’t recognize him.’ He sprouted quite a bit.

“It helps. He’s taller, but he has a great baseline game and moves well. When you see bigger players, they don’t move as well. They don’t have that consistency.”

Ask Hastings about the best and worst parts of his tennis game, and he gets right to the point.

“I like my serve, and setting my forehand up with an attackable ball,” he said. “I’m working on my volleys now – sticking them and putting them deep, and then closing on them at the net.”

It’s obviously nice for the team to have someone around who is a top-notch player; a teammate described him at practice by saying, “He just wins all the time.” It makes everyone better.

“We’ve had kids go to states, and the standard has been raised,” LeMar said. “Greg, by far, has raised it to another level. We have a very young team. Some of the kids who are here are young and friends with Greg. He’s attracted them. We’re the youngest team in the league.”

Hastings works out at the Miller Tennis Center in Williamsville four or five times a week. It’s easier to find someone there who can hit with him regularly and challenge him in practice.

Still, he likes hanging out with his teammates and acting like a freshman.

“Because of the bad weather this year, we had a lot of practices in a gym,” LeMar said. “It was the elementary school gym. The funny part is that Greg looks forward to going to those practices with his buddies, and just being with his friends. ... You could see him smile and want to be there. It’s a great team thing.”

Soon Hastings’ freshman year is over, and the clock will continue to run. Even in ninth grade, he has set a goal.

“I want to go to Ohio State University,” Hastings said. “That’s a good school. I just like the game. I just like playing it.”

A free college education is a good reward for athletic ability. But in the meantime, he and his family will be under some pressure about taking things a big step forward. Some top players from cold weather climates move to Florida for year-round training. But that can cost as much as $80,000 per year. A move south worked for Grand Island’s Jimmy Arias, when he was a prodigy from Grand Island. Yet how many out there can play like Arias, who at one point was fifth in the world?

“You want what’s best for Greg,” LeMar said. “If he and his parents decided tomorrow that they were going to Florida, I would wish him the best and want him to be the happiest kid in America. That’s where it’s at.”

How good can he be? Stay tuned.

email: bbailey@buffnews.com