At the start of the 2021 Washougal High School boys tennis season, senior Gavin Kestner and junior Tucker Kneipp thought that they’d be facing off in weekly “challenge” matches to determine the squad’s No. 1 singles player for next competition.
But they ended up playing with each other, not against each other. As the Panthers’ top doubles tandem, they capped off a better-than-expected fall campaign with a third-place finish at the 2A District 4 tournament, held Oct. 26-28 in Olympia, Washington, by playing “some of their best tennis” of the season, according to Washougal coach Angela Watts.
Kestner and Kneipp will compete in the 2021-22 2A state meet, to be held Friday, May 27, and Saturday, May 28, at the Nordstrom Tennis Center in Seattle.
“Throughout the year I honestly didn’t see us going far, and I feel bad looking back now. I think we should’ve had more confidence,” Kneipp said. “It was definitely not how I thought the season was going to go because I expected to play singles all the way through sub-districts and districts if I made it. But I’m definitely happy with (how the season has gone). I don’t think it could’ve gone any better. I think we proved how talented we are.”
Their success might not have happened if Watts hadn’t decided to pair her two top singles players together as doubles partners for the Panthers’ second match of the season.
“When we thought about how far we could go in the postseason tournaments, (pairing up) was definitely our best option,” Kneipp said.
Kestner and Kneipp embraced the change, but also the challenges that came with it — they had to become comfortable with not only the doubles game itself, but each other. But they quickly realized that their playing styles complemented each other well and that they could use their athleticism and stamina to outlast their opponents in long matches. .
“It helps that Tucker is really good at the net, so when I’m serving good and (the opponents) are popping them up, he just puts them away,” Kestner said. “It just works so well. We go through entire games like that, and it’s so satisfying. (That setup) is probably what we think is most comfortable. At first it was kind of rough understanding how to play with another person again because we’ve been singles players for the last two years, but it wasn’t too difficult (to adjust). We actually have pretty good chemistry.”
The transition was especially challenging for Kneipp, who had never played doubles before this season. He anticipates moving back to singles play next season, but for now is enjoying the doubles game and the camaraderie he’s built with Kestner.
“It definitely requires a lot of communication during matches and after matches (and a lot of thought) about things we could work on, but we’ve actually played really well together,” Kneipp said. “We were both the top two singles players on our team, so we were always playing against each other, helping each other get better, so we’ve had that chemistry for a while, but we hadn’t actually played with each other. But I’d say we caught on pretty quickly, though.”
Senior returns to team after sitting out 2020 season
Kestner began his Washougal High tennis career as a doubles player, but “struggled with being too hard on himself and mentally checking out of matches,” according to Watts, and switched to singles midway through his sophomore year.
He said that although playing doubles was “fun,” he “really struggled with the mental part of the game” and “had a bad attitude.”
“I’d always get upset at myself or upset at my partner because I couldn’t accept the fact that I was missing shots and causing my teammate to be brought down, and they were missing shots and bringing me down. I didn’t like that feeling, and I really struggled with it,” he said. “I’d get so frustrated with myself and compare myself with other people while playing.”
He found a much better mindset as a singles player, a role that he says allowed him to “grow and mature.” He stopped comparing himself to other people and started looking at himself and what he could do to improve.
“(I’d say), ‘I need to work on this or this,'” he said. “Instead of being like, ‘Why am I not like that person? Why can’t I be there right now?’ I (learned that I) have to take small baby steps.”
He had hoped to compete with Kneipp for the team’s No. 1 singles position and qualify for postseason play during the delayed 2020 campaign, held earlier this year.
But those desires never materialized. The COVID-19 pandemic “made it very difficult (for him) to focus at home with online learning,” according to Watts. He was ruled academically ineligible and forced to sit out the entire campaign.
“I was never really good at doing homework, and essentially that was all my junior year was (about),” Kestner said. “First semester, my grades really struggled, so that affected me not being able to play in the spring. That was kind of my own fault. I can’t blame that on the pandemic because other people still passed their classes. Why couldn’t I pass my classes? Because I didn’t try. I was so upset. I was like, ‘I can’t go and play with them. They’re playing without me. They’re going on bus trips to faraway matches, and I can’t go.’ It was a struggle.”
But he was “getting A’s and B’s again” by the end of the 2020-21 school year, and entered the 2021 season with a fresh mindset and strong desire to make up for lost time.
“(He) has grown into a mentally tough captain for our team,” Watts said. “I’m so proud of him.”