Best tennis yet to come for Tucsonan McDaniels - Arizona Daily Star

Tucson has been blessed by the Golden Age of almost everything. John Wayne movies. Linda Ronstadt songs. Lute Olson championships. Mo Udall's political career.

But there has been no Golden Age of Tennis. Bill Lenoir played at Wimbledon. Jim Grabb was on the Davis Cup team. And Tucsonans have won 136 state high school singles championships, boys and girls.

Good stuff, but no enduring tennis legend, no go-to-guy (or girl), to rival, say, basketball's Sean Elliott, gymnastics' Kerri Strug or football's Vern Friedli.

Maybe it is about to change.

At high noon Sunday, Mitch McDaniels stood on Court 11 at the Reffkin Tennis Center and whacked a serve with such violence that I looked at those in the crowd to see if they were thinking what I was thinking.

"He's really good," said Meghan Houk, tournament and facility director at the Randolph complex. "Can you imagine how far along he might be if he had started playing tennis before he was 14?"

McDaniels finished second in the state high school finals in 2010 and won the Tucson City Championship in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014. He became a New Mexico Lobo, winning 64 college singles matches in four seasons, and has now played on the ITF Futures Circuit.

He won again on Sunday, overrunning Tanque Verde High School grad Andy Barnett 6-1, 6-3 to culminate a weekend sweep in which he won five matches by a cumulative set score of 60-5.

McDaniels does not take his five-year streak of Tucson city championships lightly.

He drove from Albuquerque to defend his championship, and when he won Sunday's first set, walked deliberately to the scorer's chair and flipped the placard showing that he led 1-0. Who does that?

He was asked what it's like to win four consecutive championships.

"Actually, it's five," he said. "This is the fifth."

A lot of people might say McDaniels is a late bloomer, but it's preferable to say that he's a bloomer, period.

When Arizona declined to give him a spot on its roster, McDaniels became a Lobo and a four-year starter. In January, the Lobos routed Arizona on the UA campus, and he beat Wildcat senior David Mushayev, 6-3, 6-3.

"I wanted to play for Arizona, but because I started playing tennis so late, at 14, I probably wasn't good enough when I came out of Salpointe," he says. "When I got to New Mexico, a lot of people were skeptical. To be honest, they kicked my butt half of that first semester, but after that I started to compete, and then beat some guys. It's been quite a journey."

The Mount Rushmore of Tucson male tennis players is probably Grabb, Lenoir, player-coach Jimmy Dye and coach-administrator Jim Reffkin. There's an impressive waiting list, including noted instructor and ex-Wildcat Mark Hardy, the Bermudez and Sudhakar brothers, Mike Lee and his sons, Mike and Jackson, and championship coaches like Robb Salant.

McDaniels is a bit like Sabino, Pima College and Weber State grad Eric Styrmoe, longtime tennis instructor at the Westin La Paloma. It is Styrmoe's record that McDaniels chases.

From 1981-95, Styrmoe won 11 city singles championships, including five in succession, believed to be the Tucson record until McDaniels won on Sunday. Asked if he plans to attempt to win No. 6 next August, McDaniels nodded.

His first title, in 2011, was unexpected. McDaniels was the No. 5 seed, but beat his coach/mentor Nick Caldwell, a Pima College standout, in the semifinals. It was about that time McDaniels' career accelerated. He went from a good local player to one who is now pursuing a pro career.

Physically, McDaniels could be a model for the typical tennis pro. He's tall (6 feet, 4 inches) and thin (maybe 185 pounds), explosive and intense. He played Sunday's match with a purpose, beating the midday heat, attacking for about 90 minutes in 100-degree sunshine.

On the match-winning point, he loudly yelled and punctuated the final point by shaking his fist. It wasn't just another match watched by maybe 100 people.

"Very few people bring more passion to the game than Mitch does," said McDaniels' former UNM coach, Andy Dils.

At 23, in tennis years, the five-time Tucson city champion is still working on his break-in mileage. His best may be yet to come.

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