It was just a simple series of groundstrokes between North Stafford High School tennis player Justin Marlowe and his father, a brief session to give a photographer the chance to snap some quick action shots of the son. The staged exchange lasted 10 minutes, tops.
Evident by the gruff grunt that punctuated each return, it mattered little to Marlowe that he was on the court in a noncompetitive capacity. In his mind, he was gripping a racket, so there was only one way to play. If he was a golfer, he wouldn't swing the club any differently just because he wasn't playing in a match, would he?
"Even if the guy is five levels below me, I still try to whack the ball," said Marlowe, a sophomore who this week will compete in the Virginia AAA state singles tournament. "I think [practice partners] know I'm going to play how I'm going to play no matter how good the other guy is."
"It's like in the military," said his father, Terry, a lieutenant colonel in the Army. "You fight like you train."
Northwestern Region runner-up Marlowe will take that mentality with him to Norfolk this week for the state quarterfinals at Old Dominion University. His opponent Friday morning will be Monacan High School senior Matt Hopke, the Central Region champion. The winner will play in a state semifinal later that morning. The singles championship is at 1 p.m. Saturday.
Hylton's Brandon Morehead and Matt Cocowitch will take on Mills Godwin duo Kevin Loden and Clay Nolde in the state doubles quarterfinals Friday afternoon.
For a friendly, unassuming guy -- one who has all but two "Seinfeld" episodes preserved for posterity on videotape -- Marlowe takes his tennis awfully seriously. Few of his close friends play the sport. In fact, to avoid forced socializing at a tennis camp this summer, he will attend the group workouts during the day but will stay in a hotel at night.
He's there to play tennis, not to horse around afterward in the swimming pool with guys he might one day be trying to beat.
"To them, it's a camp," Terry Marlowe said. "To him it's a tennis camp."
Oddly enough, it was Redskins training camp five years ago that helped launch Marlowe's tennis career. While visiting Carlisle, Pa., the Marlowes found themselves with nothing to do one day when practice was canceled. They lifted weights in a gym, where Justin spied the tennis courts and suggested they knock the ball around.
Using borrowed rackets, the younger Marlowe kept his father on the move -- retrieving balls that sprayed all over the facility.
"It's not baseball, it's tennis," his dad groused when chasing the errant shots.
Marlowe soon proved a quick study, honing his game on the North Stafford courts, and turning heads in the process. One day, he happened to be hitting at the site of a clinic run by an opposing coach, who took notice of Marlowe's form.
That form is almost impeccable. Marlowe's game is camping out on the baseline and wearing down opponents. But the 5-foot-7 player, whose small stature gives him better leverage on his groundstrokes than some taller opponents, is trying to reprogram himself to venture to the net more often and develop his overhead game. He has the stamina but often has to labor for each point, like a pitcher going to a full count on every batter before recording a strikeout. Quarterfinal opponent Hopke might not tire so easily. He played both tennis and soccer at Monacan this season.
"My shots are going to put players on the defensive, and if I'm at the net, I can just put it away," said Marlowe, who carries a 3.8 grade-point average in an accelerated curriculum. "But my mentality is to stay on the baseline and keep trying to hit with players, and it doesn't always work."
If it doesn't work in Norfolk, Marlowe will have two more years to compete for a state title.
"He could blast the ball by most 12- to 14-year-olds," Terry Marlowe said. "Sixteen-year-olds hit them back."
CAPTION: "Even if the guy is five levels below me, I still try to whack the ball," says Justin Marlowe, who will compete in the Virginia AAA state singles tournament.