And to think, Kellen Bates was almost a soccer player. Maybe even a baseball outfielder or hockey forward. But as destiny would have it, the curly-haired left-hander made a choice when he was a high school freshman in Kalispell — he wanted to play tennis.
Four years later, Bates is one of the greatest netters the state of Montana has ever produced.
In front of his hometown crowd one last time, the Glacier senior put on another one-sided exhibition of mastery at the Northern AA divisional tournament last week.
With a 6-3, 6-3 victory over teammate Hunter Blalack in the championship, Bates secured his fourth consecutive divisional singles title and improved his undefeated match streak to 57-0 in four years of Montana competition. Bates has only lost two sets out of 116 and holds a 706-205 record in games. In tennis, four points win a game; six games win a set; and two, or sometimes three, sets win a match.
At the Class AA state meet in Great Falls, May 16-17, Bates will vie for his fourth straight singles championship, an achievement that only three other prep athletes have accomplished, according to the Montana High School Association.
Just eight others have won three or more singles titles in any classification, including Bates. He’s now on the verge of joining the short list of four-timers: Roger Mergerth from Missoula Sentinel (1951-54), Keithan Gregg of Cut Bank (2001-04), and Kyle Baltrusch of Havre (2002-05), according to MHSA.
“I just need to get four more wins,” Bates said after winning the divisional crown.
Glacier has high hopes beyond Bates, too. Three all-state girls, including reigning champ Katya Kulikova, are back at state with their eyes on individual and team trophies. Glacier finished one point shy of winning its third straight team championship last year. Kulikova is a talented senior with a shot at repeating, and defeated Great Falls’ Molly Crum in the divisional match. Teammates Hailey Blalack, Veronica Walton and Kailea Vaudt are equally skillful and could chase top-three finishes yet again in singles and doubles. On the boys side, Hunter Blalack is a talented sophomore who placed third at state last year but has been training against Bates all season, and could secure a rematch at state. Glacier’s boys finished second as a team last year. Glenn Strickler, Matt Widen and Tyler Beagley from Flathead have also put together solid seasons and could earn medals at state.
But the name that will stand out most in Great Falls is Bates’. His profile has risen beyond the state and he competes at national tournaments throughout the year. He’s already agreed to play tennis next year at Indiana University.
“I’m looking forward to state. I’d like to finish the season strong,” he said.
His main competition is likely Hellgate senior Alex Braun, who is fresh off a Western AA divisional title.
Bates cruised through last year’s state meet, losing only five games in his first three matches and defeating Braun in the title match, 6-3, 7-5.
“There’s good competition out there this year,” Bates said.
A recent injury could make things interesting, too. Bates sprained his thumb in a match in Helena two weeks ago, and has had to play with a brace and heavily taped right hand. It’s not his serving hand, but still makes hitting with both hands more difficult.
“I was hitting the most two handers I’ve hit all week,” he said after the divisional. “I’ve just been slicing one handers. I could feel it but it didn’t hurt that bad.”
Like years past, Bates spent most of the season competing at regional tournaments outside the state. He said he noticed a drop in his performances at times, which he wasn’t used to.
“I haven’t been playing as good as seasons past, but I still think I’ve been competing better lately,” he said. “I just need to get confident. I’m confident that I can play as well as I can anytime. But I just haven’t been.”
Rob Bates and Savita Chaudhry sat in the sun at the tennis courts at Flathead Valley Community College, watching their son win his fourth divisional title last week. They recalled their son’s fateful decision to devote himself to tennis instead of all the other sports he enjoyed.
It certainly didn’t cross their mind that someday he would be one of the state’s all-time greats.
“He was good in most of the other sports and had fun, but over time, he kind of knew (tennis) was his favorite,” Savita said. “We talked with him, ‘If you really want to pursue something you have to pretty much dedicate more time to it, and if you don’t that’s fine.’”
Bates quickly developed self-discipline and began a pursuit of success that carried off the court. He has maintained a 4.0 GPA through high school while traveling numerous times during the school year for competition.
“It’s tough in Northwest Montana. We’re away from major centers and it’s under the radar,” Rob Bates said. “People don’t know how hard all these kids work. They work really hard.”
Both parents are excited to see what happens at state, but like they said, the end result is not all that matters.
“He’s mild mannered and a nice kid. People think of him as a nice kid and we’re very proud of that,” Savita said. “It’s just great to watch him play. There’s nothing better.”
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