Kristia Suriben from time to time glances at the gold medals she earned the past two Novembers as girls singles champion in the Far East High School Tennis Tournament.
A third one might be as difficult to achieve as the previous two, if the field in this week’s Far East tournament is any indicator.
Suriben, a senior at Japan’s E.J. King School, finds herself going up against sophomores Kennedy Allen of Seoul American and Elissa Mason of Kadena on Okinawa, among others. All three are unbeaten this season.
But while opposing coaches in Japan and Okinawa say that Mason and Suriben have stepped up their games, Korea coaches say they’ve not seen the likes of Allen, a Florida state semifinalist last year.
“She’s as good as any player I’ve seen” since Kadena’s Amy Lopes won the tournament in 2004, said coach Ed Thompson of Taegu American in South Korea.
Strong in all phases of the game, Allen has beaten Seoul American’s boys in practice matches, said Thompson and Allen’s own coach, Emilia Flores. “She should be the odd’s-on favorite going in,” Thompson said.
What to do in the face of that?
Suriben confessed to a bit of nervousness, “but I’m going there to play my game,” she said. “I can only worry about myself.”
Mason, who lost to Suriben 6-0 in the singles championship last year, pretty much echoed Suriben’s sentiments.
“I can’t play their games. I can only play mine. I can only worry about what I can control, which is me,” Mason said.
The three-day battle for Far East bragging rights begins Monday and returns to the 11-court Risner Tennis Complex, site of the tournament for 15 years from 1990-2004 before it moved to Guam in 2005-06.
A return to Okinawa also means a return to the format used in 2004. The Davis Cup-style team format used the last two years has been scrapped in favor of playing singles, doubles and mixed doubles.
Each team may bring four boys and four girls players, who may choose to play in two of the three events.
It’s pretty much a given, coaches said, that Allen, Suriben and Mason will engage in singles, and most coaches surveyed said those three would be left to slug it out for the singles title.
“That could very well be,” Thompson said, adding that Allen “looks pretty good compared to what I’ve seen” in Japan and Okinawa.
Seoul International, an international school rival to Seoul American and Taegu American in Korea, played in last month’s Asia-Pacific Invitational, in which Japan juniors star Kanoka Hayashi of American School In Japan finished second.
“They (Seoul International players) told me that Kanoka and Kennedy compare favorably,” Thompson said.
Suriben feels her sister, sophomore Rizalina, with whom she won the Far East girls doubles last year, could be a darkhorse. “She’s improved,” Suriben said, adding that a Suriben vs. Suriben singles final is not out of the conversation. “It could be. We’ll see.”
While singles play could grab most of the attention on the girls side, the boys doubles could come down to Seoul American’s Song Ho Downes and Chris Paek, unbeaten in Korea, against defending Far East champions Kenta Takahashi and Ken Brophy of Yokota in Japan.
“They’ll be tough ones, and they’ll be very interesting,” Seoul American coach Emilia Flores said.
Thompson likes Downes’ and Paek’s chances. “They play well together. They feed off each other. They know each other’s assignments. They play as a team,” Thompson said.
Across the board, coaches feel that Seoul American is a good bet to capture its third straight team title. It already had nine players returning from last year’s roster before Allen came aboard in August.
“Seoul American is always strong,” Kadena coach Robert Bliss said. “They have an incredible amount of depth. It would take some outstanding performances to mount an overall team challenge to them.”
While most teams in the Pacific may have a strong boys but a weak girls lineup or vice versa, Seoul American and Kadena are two of the few who are deep on both sides. But Thompson also favors Seoul American.
“A three-peat is where my money would be,” he said.
Flores agrees. “This is as strong a team as I’ve had,” she said. “They’ve been with me for four years. They’re like part of my family. I lose most of them next year. So I will enjoy the moment. Go out and have fun. That’s the key term for us in this tournament.”
Far East High School Tennis TournamentDates-Nov. 5-8, 2007.
Site-Risner Tennis Complex, Risner Fitness & Sports Complex, Kadena Air Base, Okinawa.
Host school-Kadena High School, Kadena Air Base, Okinawa.
Format-Boys and girls singles and doubles, mixed doubles, single-elimination with consolation brackets.
Schedule of events-Opening ceremony 9 a.m. at Risner Tennis Complex. First matches 9:30 a.m. Monday. Tuesday and Wednesday play begins at 8:30 a.m. Championship matches noon-5 p.m. Wednesday. Thursday available for play in case of rain. Closing ceremony following conclusion of last championship match.
Participating schools-Kadena, Kubasaki, Okinawa; E.J. King, Matthew C. Perry, Yokota, Zama American, Nile C. Kinnick, Robert D. Edgren, Japan; Seoul American, Osan American, Taegu American, South Korea; Guam High.
Awards-Overall team championship, 8-player All-Far East teams for boys and girls, first- through third-place awards for boys and girls singles and doubles and mixed doubles.
Players to watch
Girls, Kristia Suriben, E.J. King, two-time defending champion. Kennedy Allen, Seoul American, Korean-American Interscholastic Activities Conference champion. Elissa Mason, Kadena, two-time Okinawa Activities Council champion.
Boys, Kenta Takahashi and Ken Brophy, Yokota, defending Far East boys doubles champions. Chris Paek and Song Ho Downes, reigning Korean-American Interscholastic Activities Council boys doubles champions. Kyle Sprow and Elliot Mason, 1-2 finishers in Okinawa Activities Council singles.