Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007

Fuccillo: hard-court hardball

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Rising Holy Cross junior No. 1 singles player Maria Fuccillo, ranked No. 29 nationally in the USTA Girls 16s, picked up her best-ever finish at a Super National event last week, teaming with Nicki Stratar (N.Y.) to finish third of 64 teams in the doubles competition at the U.S. National Hard Court 16 Championships in San Diego, Calif.

Though Fuccillo, of Rockville, lost a tight 7-5, 6-4 battle to No. 35 Jessica Alexander in the first round of singles, she won five straight-set matches in the tournament’s back draw. But, perhaps more gratifying than any of her on-court results, Fuccillo received the tournament’s Sportsmanship Award — she was singled out in a field of more than 200 of the country’s most talented junior girls tennis players.

‘‘I’m definitely happy with how I played,” Fuccillo said. ‘‘But now, it’s like, at least I go out of the tournament winning something. It was a huge honor. It’s definitely important to me to be respectful and have good sportsmanship. No one is perfect on the court, but I always try to remember it’s just a game and not a matter of life and death.”

Fuccillo’s honor is not completely shocking. For all her accomplishments, the strong right-hander with penetrating groundstrokes and impeccable court sense, still shies away from accolades and attention. She’s quiet and humble, seemingly unaware of just how good she is.

But Fuccillo is indeed a unique talent. She literally has all the shots in the book and she has the smarts to know when to use them. She’s quick around the court and consistent, making it difficult for opponents to find a weakness. And perhaps most important, she’s able to keep her emotions in check.

In addition to her natural ability, Fuccillo puts in the time and effort on the practice courts. She spends more than 12 hours a week polishing her skills and keeping fit. And it’s helped catapult her up the rankings. She’s risen from No. 51 last fall to No. 29 in the USTA girls 16s — as players get closer to the top of the rankings it gets harder to move up. And, just 16, she’s already ranked No. 118 of more than 1,700 in the girls 18s.

‘‘Playing the tournaments is fun,” Fuccillo said. ‘‘But I like training hard. Then when you’re out on the court during a match, you see what you’ve been training for. I like being motivated.”

Rather than set one huge ultimate goal, Fuccillo stays on track by setting high, but reachable goals along the way. This fall she’ll want to add to her two consecutive Washington Catholic Athletic Conference No. 1 singles titles, as well as stay undefeated. And, as she starts the college selection process, she’ll play more girls 18s events, hoping to break into the top 100 by winter. She’ll also continue to dabble in some International Tennis Federation tournaments as well.

It’s too early for Fuccillo to officially talk to college coaches, but she has her eye on some Division I schools. Landing a spot in the lineup at a top Division I schools is definitely high on Fuccillo’s priorities list.