Anchorage's Whitney Williams and Paul Hemry are prepared for a major heat-index hike and a major upgrade in competition.
Two of Anchorage's top tennis talents, Williams and Hemry will team up at the U.S. Open National Playoffs mixed doubles tournament this week in Arlington, Texas, where the winners will earn a main draw wild card into the U.S. Open in August.
"I've played in other professional tournaments, but not nearly as big as this," Williams said.
With temperatures expected to hover around 100 degrees on the outdoor courts at Arlington Tennis Center, Williams and Hemry will begin play Wednesday and must win five straight matches over four days to top the 19 teams in the single-elimination tournament.
"I don't know what to expect down there," Hemry said. "My guess is there will be two or three teams as good or better than us, but I think we could win it."
Hemry, 38, is a counselor and tennis coach at South High, where Williams, 16, plays high school tennis. Both are used to winning within the Anchorage tennis scene. Williams often plays in the men's division of local events, usually reaching the semifinals or finals. In April, she met Hemry in the men's A singles division final at the Mayor's Cup tournament, losing to him in straight sets.
Hemry, a 1992 Dimond High graduate who played college tennis for Cornell University and Pacific Lutheran University, thinks Williams is playing at a Division I college level. He said he will rely heavily on her talent to carry the team in Texas.
"Down there, I won't be that special," he said. "Whitney, on the other hand, will be one of the strongest females, so that's where we'll have an advantage. She'll be the superstar."
Williams was nationally ranked when she moved from Louisiana to Alaska with her family two years ago. Since then, she hasn't lost a high school tennis match while helping South win three straight state titles.
If she ever gets a chance to turn professional, she wants to do so in doubles.
"I like to volley at the net a lot," she said. "You can't be at the net all the time in singles."
Williams first teamed with Hemry a couple of years ago and the duo quickly found a winning chemistry. Hemry's strong serve and savvy court sense works well with Williams' ability to handle powerful shots from men.
"When you find someone you are really comfortable playing with, it allows you to relax and really play your game," Whitney's mother, Stephanie Williams, said. "They know how to execute their game plan. Paul has a really good eye for picking out people's weaknesses."
It was Stephanie's idea to sign the pair up for the qualifying tournament, and she will also be in Arlington this week to offer support and make sure Williams and Hemry have nothing but tennis to think about.
Whitney and her mom are closely connected through tennis, having both taken up the game when Whitney was 4. Whitney took to the sport right away, displaying exceptional hand-eye coordination and an undying love for the game that kept her on the court nearly every day. Whitney said her mom has been instrumental in her progression as a player.
"She knows strategy and she definitely knows what I do wrong and how to help me get better," Whitney said.
The strategy prevalent in doubles might be the best part for Williams and Hemry. Players are forced to shift on the fly and adapt quickly in doubles, Hemry said.
"I think singles is more demanding in terms of the strain psychologically, but in terms of tactics, I think doubles is a little bit more challenging," he said.
There is also the added benefit of sharing the workload, and Hemry is all too happy to leave most of the running to the younger Williams.
"She's gonna be covering most of the court and doing most of the work," he said. "I'll hit some big serves and she'll finish the point off. Life will be good."
Reach Jeremy Peters at email@example.com or 257-4335.
By JEREMY PETERS
Anchorage Daily News