While watching Glacier freshman Kellen Bates dismantle yet another opponent at the Northern AA divisional tennis tournament last week, an opposing coach shook his head.
“I hope he doesn’t get bored,” the coach said, “playing with us common folks.”
Indeed, boredom might be the only force that can stop Bates from winning the Class AA state championship in Bozeman on May 21-22. But, considering Bates’ mental focus and love of the game, it’s hard to believe boredom will get him either.
Entering the state tournament as the top seed, Bates is undefeated in his first season of high school tennis. He hasn’t even lost a set, and that’s including his matches against Eric Braun of Missoula Hellgate. Braun, a senior, is the two-time defending Class AA champion. Bates beat Braun 6-4, 6-2 in Missoula and then 6-3, 6-1 in Helena.
Perhaps even more rare than the possibility of a freshman winning the state championship is the possibility of a brother and sister winning the Class AA individual titles in the same year. Bates’ older sister, Glacier junior Liana Bates, has finished runner-up the past two seasons. After being so close two times, Liana seems poised to break through.
“It would mean a lot,” she said.
The younger Bates is more stoic than giddy about his state title hopes.
“I’d be proud of my state championship,” he said. “But I know I’d still have a lot of work ahead of me to get to where I want to go.”
Oh, the places he could go, if he continues at this pace. In addition to being the top-ranked tennis player in Montana, the lanky southpaw has a sectional title under his belt, which he claimed as a 12-year-old at a United States Tennis Association (USTA) tournament in Las Vegas.
Before deciding to move up to USTA’s 16-year-old division, Bates was ranked No. 5 in the 14-year-old division in the Intermountain Section, which comprises Montana, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and Las Vegas. He turns 15 in June. Liana plays in sectional tournaments throughout the year as well.
Long before Bates was a star tennis player, he was just another little brother, looking up to his big sister. When Liana began playing tennis as a kid, Kellen decided he too needed a racket in his hand. For his 5th birthday, his grandmother bought him a tennis lesson.
“I don’t really remember it, but I’ve been told that when she started playing, I wanted to play too,” Kellen said.
The Bates siblings played together constantly growing up, whether it was against each other or with each other at lessons and camps. They still attend lessons together at the Summit Fitness Medical Center and practice together. Liana only takes time away from tennis during the fall, when she plays soccer, while Kellen plays year round.
“I’ll go a couple of months without taking a day off,” Kellen said. “So, I’d say I hit six-and-a-half days a week.”
And, while Kellen now beats Liana in head-to-head matches, the degree and frequency of those victories seems to be a matter of dispute. Liana is unsure about Kellen’s claim to be the “dominant force” in the matchups, but, like siblings do, they can agree to disagree.
But for Liana, 17, more important than beating Kellen is beating Ellie Crum, the defending Class AA champion. Crum, a senior from Great Falls High, beat Bates 6-2, 6-4 in the championship match last year.
Bates has never beaten Crum but has steadily improved, with her best performance coming on April 24. In that match, Crum narrowly beat Bates 6-3, 6-7, 10-3. Crum then defeated Bates in last week’s divisional championship 3-6, 6-3, 6-1. Those are the only two times Bates has lost this year.
“I’m getting better and I’m getting more confident,” she said.
While Liana is chasing the individual state crown, the girls are frontrunners to claim the team title. They have placed third each of the last two years, but they are deep this year, led by Bates, fellow junior Cami Mathison and a pair of talented freshmen in Hailey Blalack and Vernoica Walton. Mathison and Walton are Glacier’s top doubles team.
“We definitely have a chance to take state,” Liana said. “In fact, I think we should take state.”
Glacier head coach Josh Munro said Liana is constantly improving her game, working on her ground strokes and tweaking her style. And she’s a smart player.
“Each match she has a game plan and she follows it,” Munro said.
Munro said Kellen has virtually no weaknesses in his game. He plays well at the net, along the baseline and has an excellent serve. Most importantly, Munro said he plays with maturity far beyond his years.
“He definitely has a much stronger mental game than most players,” Munro said. “You can tell he’s been playing for a long time because even though he’s just a freshman, pressure doesn’t throw him off.”
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