May 28, 2006

Benvenuto Rallies for Title

May 28, 2006

By Emanuel Lee
The San Mateo Daily Journal

Aptos, Calif. - Steve Benvenuto was in deep trouble. His left ankle was stiff, his opponent was playing lights-out, and, most disturbing of all, the Aragon High senior wasn't chastising himself.

Benvenuto is at his best when he gets on himself with controlled aggression, but during the first set of Thursday's match, his facial expression was one of defeat. That he lost the opening set in a nifty 15 minutes was surely a sign that Benvenuto's final match in a brilliant high school career would end with a disappointing thud.

Then, in a Stephen King novel-like twist, Benvenuto got back on track, and nothing could stop him. After his first-set troubles, the top-seeded Benvenuto won 10 of the next 11 games, then held off a late charge en route to a 1-6, 6-1, 6-4 win over second-seeded Simon Cheng of Leland in the championship match of the Central Coast Section tournament at Imperial Tennis Courts.

When it was over, Benvenuto and Cheng hugged at the net like a couple of prizefighters, knowing they had given everything, sensing their championship battle was one for the ages. It was Benvenuto's second consecutive CCS title, tying him with six others for the most in section history.

"The first one is always nice, but the feeling was better this year," Benvenuto said. "I couldn't have asked for anything more. It feels really good to come out of this tournament and win four tough matches."

Last year, Benvenuto won the championship without having to play the final because his opponent, Ken Kaiser, cramped up badly during warm-ups and had to default. This year's run was a ton more difficult, and could best be compared to walking through a minefield -- there were dangerous opponents everywhere. Benvenuto had to survive a tough three-set match with Denny Fafek of Los Altos -- a highly-ranked USTA player -- in the first round Tuesday, then won a harder-than-the-score-indicated 6-4, 6-2 match against Max Bradley of Robert Louis Stevenson of Pebble Beach just to advance to Thursday's semifinals and finals.

After defeating fourth-seeded Jeff Gast of Saratoga 7-5, 7-5 in a 2-hour, 10-minute semifinal, Benvenuto had an hour to eat, drink and pop three Advil pills to help ease the pain of his left ankle, which he rolled on Tuesday and again during practice on Wednesday.

"When I went to bed the night before, I didn't think I would be able to play today," he said. "I came out real stiff (in the final) and had trouble with the ankle, and he played beautifully. I was really tired, and adrenaline was the only thing that could take the tiredness away. I have to get pumped up (to get on my game)."

That's exactly what Benvenuto did. Starting with the opening game of the second set, Benvenuto exhorted himself to play at a higher level, continually pumping his fist and screaming "Come on!" and "Let's go!" After a nightmarish first set that included only three winners and 10 unforced errors, Benvenuto, who had all three of his service games broken, got down to business. The 6-foot-2, 185-pound Santa Clara-bound star started to take control by unleashing a tidal wave of powerful serves, forehands and returns. Just as quickly as he lost the first set, Benvenuto won the second in rapid fashion.

Benvenuto continued to steamroll Cheng early in the third, taking a 4-0 lead. But Cheng, who destroyed Benvenuto the last time the two played in a USTA event, came back with a fury, winning the next four games to tie things up. The critical point of the game came with Cheng serving at 4-4 and 30-all. After Cheng hit a beautifully placed drop shot that landed just over the net, a hustling Benvenuto got to the ball just before it was going to bounce a second time, and more importantly, he did something with it, hitting a backhand slice that barely got a piece of the endline to set up a break point. On the next point, Cheng dumped a forehand volley into the net, putting the match on Benvenuto's racket.

"If he held serve there at 4-all, it would have been a tough match for me to win," Benvenuto said. "Mentally, it might have been too tough to overcome with him winning five straight games."

On serve at 5-4 but facing a break point, Benvenuto showed why you should never underestimate the heart of a champion. With the enviable ability to summon his best tennis when it matters most -- a trait that separates the great players from merely the good ones -- Benvenuto hit a service winner for deuce, a punishing inside-outside forehand winner to set up match point, and a deep, penetrating forehand that Cheng hit back long to seal the outcome. Just like that, Benvenuto had made history.

Considering the adversity he had to go through and the high caliber of competition just to get to the final, it was the single best match of his prep career. While Benvenuto had the bigger game, he couldn't just rely on brute strength if he wanted to win the championship. Cheng actually had the more potent backhand, and he ripped winners from everywhere on the court in mid-rally, giving Benvenuto a taste of his own medicine. In the end, Benvenuto had to dig deep, persevere and go to a place that's carried him through tough times and made him the player that he is today. He had to look inside, reflect and once again show determination, because faith is what has carried him to the top. He finished with 23 winners to 24 unforced errors, while Cheng had 24 winners and 17 unforced errors.

However, Benvenuto had the X-factor -- a rocket serve that he was able to launch on crucial points. With his howitzer, Benvenuto hit 15 service winners, and won countless other points by setting up his big forehand.

"The key to the match was serving well after the first set," he said. "He has such a great backhand, and you don't want to hit it to his forehand either. Once I made the adjustment to my toss, I was able to control the play."

Benvenuto finished the season a perfect 26-0, capping a storybook ending to a brilliant career.

"In truth, I didn't expect to do all of this," he said.

In 2005, the CCS title was his breakthrough. In 2006, a second CCS championship would confirm Benvenuto's place in CCS tennis immortality.