TEMPLE TERRACE — In a closet-sized office behind the six hard courts at the Lightfoot Recreation Center, King boys tennis coach Peter Adler maintains a constantly-expanding shrine to the frustrations the game can impose on even the most strong-willed players.
Adler calls this space his “Hall of Shame.” Lining the concrete walls of the makeshift office are more than a dozen smashed-up tennis rackets showing varying degrees of damage.
On one wall, a 1960s-era wooden racket is cracked in three places after having been thrown over the fence. Next to it, a modern graphite racket is completely flattened on one side, the result of a post-match meeting with the court’s unforgiving concrete.
Adler’s display is like a trophy case for the ill-tempered. One destroyed racket in particular, though, is the crown jewel of his collection.
Last season, King’s No. 2 singles player, Victor Ke, then a junior, rallied from a set down to defeat his opponent in an emotionally draining three-setter at the district tournament. After the match, the opponent demolished his racket and left it on the court. Ke would go on to win a district title.
Adler kept the broken racket, a memento from one of the more satisfying victories in his six seasons coaching at King.
“That match was a turning point for Victor,” Adler said.
For two seasons now, tennis players across the bay area have been losing their composure when facing the King boys team.
In 2012, King won district and region titles to advance for the first time in recent memory to the Class 3A state tournament, where they finished in a three-way tie for fifth place out of eight teams.
This season, the Lions are 10-0 — including a victory over Wharton, perennially the gold standard in Hillsborough County — with one regular-season match remaining today against Chamberlain. They enter next week’s 3A-9 district tournament as the prohibitive favorite.
“We’re basically the same team as last year,” said Kiril Kirkov, King’s No. 1 singles player. “But we’re a little more experienced.”
Kirkov, who will study engineering and play for Carnegie Mellon next season, has manned the Lions’ top position for three seasons and has gone undefeated during the regular season the past two. Kirkov plays with a hat autographed by Juan Martin del Potro and a game that mirrors the pro’s. A steady performer who rarely rattles, Kirkov controls his opponents with heavy topspin groundstrokes that find their mark a few inches inside the baseline and a well-placed service game that earns a lot of free points.
“He’s like my assassin,” Adler said. “I really don’t have to keep a close watch of his matches. The three years I’ve had him, I think I’ve only had to go to him one time to push him.”
Ke is King’s senior captain, having held down the No. 2 spot for three seasons after playing No. 1 as a freshman.
“I don’t like to name an underclassman as a captain,” Adler said. “But, truthfully, I could have named Victor captain as a freshman and he would have done an outstanding job. That’s how mature he is.”
The only change in the lineup from a year ago is at No. 3 singles, where freshman Vignesh Bhethanabotla replaces since-graduated Chiran Witanachchi.
“One thing Vignesh is really good at is I can tell him something, and he’ll do it,” Adler said. “He’ll listen. He’s willing to learn.”
Gregory Smith, a junior, is a returning starter at No. 4 singles, and Hengyi Wu, a senior, is back at No. 5 after advancing to the 3A final at that position a year ago.
Last season, King was a surprise state qualifier. The players admit they were just happy to make it to the finals. Now, a year later, they’ll have a target squarely on their backs.
And that suits this team just fine.
“We’re pretty focused this year,” Ke said. “Our goal is to finish top three at states.”
Note: Played over two days; boys and girls at the same site unless noted.
When/where: Wiregrass Ranch, 9 a.m. Tuesday-Wednesday. The boys singles quarterfinals and semifinals will be played at Meadow Point 1 courts Tuesday.
Teams: Bloomingdale, Brandon, Durant, Newsome, Plant City, Wiregrass Ranch
When/where: Boys and girls at Hunter’s Green, 8 a.m. Monday-Tuesday
Teams: Alonso, Freedom, Gaither, Plant, Riverview, Steinbrenner, Tampa Bay Tech, Wharton
When/where: Hillsborough Community College, 8 a.m. Monday-Tuesday
Teams: Armwood, Chamberlain, East Bay, Hillsborough, Jefferson, King, Leto, Sickles, Strawberry Crest
When/where: Hillsborough Community College, 8:30 a.m. Monday-Tuesday
Teams: Blake, Dunedin, Holy Names, Jesuit, Lakewood, Lennard, Middleton, Robinson, Spoto, Tampa Catholic
When/where: Hillsborough Community College, 9 a.m. April 3-4
Teams: Academy at the Lakes, Berkeley Prep, Bishop McLaughlin, Cambridge, Carrollwood Day, Citrus Park Christian, Seffner Christian, Tampa Prep, Weeki Wachee