Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007

Tennis: Liang and Co. play an international friendly at Holton

Holton-Arms hosts seven other countries at the Supergirls Invitational

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It’s not out of the ordinary that rising Holton-Arms seventh-grader Spencer Liang would be playing tennis with a friend on her school’s pristine courts. But Saturday wasn’t an ordinary day.

Saturday, Liang, 12, of Potomac, ranked No. 10 nationally in the USTA Girls 12s and playing in her first-ever international tournament, won the inaugural Supergirls Invitational hosted by Holton varsity and junior-varsity tennis coaches Yann Auzoux and Erin Nicholson Ortiz Aug. 13-18. Liang used her penetrating groundstrokes to defeat the tournament’s No. 3 seed, newfound friend Laura Fiala, ranked No. 3 nationally in Switzerland’s Girls 14s. Liang’s family hosted Fiala and fellow Swiss player Rebecca Boguska, who finished sixth, for the week.

The Supergirls Invitational, Auzoux’s brainchild the last couple years, featured 32 elite players from seven countries — Switzerland, Spain, France, United States, Great Britain, Russia and Thailand.

Auzoux had been working on organizing an international tournament in the area for several years but hadn’t found a proper venue. He was given final approval by Holton in March and has been working with Ortiz since to make the idea a reality.

‘‘It’s an invitational, so we contacted foreign countries and asked them if they’d send some of their best players,” Auzoux said. ‘‘It’s nice to have them here, give these American girls a taste for international competition. In the U.S., players mostly play in sectional and national tournaments. We don’t get that international experience. You travel from the East Coast to the West Coast and it’s a big trip. But these international girls are used to playing in other countries because their countries are smaller. It was nice for them to get a taste of U.S. style, U.S. playing and it’s a great cultural exchange.”

What made last week’s tournament so special was it was more than just an international tennis competition. The 32 girls, coming from such different cultural backgrounds but sharing a common love for tennis, forged fast friendships. Unlike at any other serious competition, they spent time together off the courts, touring Washington, D.C., shopping at Montgomery Mall and attending pool parties.

‘‘This is my first time in the United States,” Fiala said. ‘‘It was a great experience, something new. In usual tournaments you play only tennis. Here you go see the White House, tour the area with each other. I think definitely I’ll stay in touch with friends I’ve made here and hope to see them in international competition in the future.”

Liang was one of several Holton girls entered in last week’s tournament, including fellow rising seventh-graders Angelina Di Paolo and Mimi Lynham (both lost in the first round), rising eighth-grader Lily Lynham, who reached the second round, and rising freshmen Megan Reynolds and Sophia Di Paolo, who all lost in the opening round.

Liang has rocketed to the top of tennis in this country just four short years after first picking up a racket at age 8. The Supergirls Invitational was the first of many international tournaments to come as she continues working toward her ultimate goal, a professional tennis career. But she knows it won’t be the same friendly atmosphere she experienced at Holton last week — she and Fiala exchanged a hug at the net after the final rather than the traditional handshake, exhibiting the respect and friendship developed over the last week.

‘‘It was really cool to be able to win, this being my first international tournament and I was one of the youngest here,” said Liang, who spends about 25 hours a week honing her already exceptional skills. ‘‘This tournament was a really good experience, getting to play people from different countries, making new friends. I’ll definitely play here again if they continue to have it.”