Just a few feet of grass and a chain-link fence separated Chris Lissner from her son, Centennial tennis player Ryan Lissner, last Friday, but for 20 minutes she barely recognized him.
"It was like he was a totally different person out there," Lissner said after watching her son hit one mediocre groundstroke after another. "But I knew it wouldn't last for long and he was going to win, because sooner or later he was going to flip the switch."
Indeed. After losing three of the first five games of an eight-game set, Lissner flipped that switch. Like a high-powered machine that is suddenly given electricity, the 14-year-old freshman crushed ball after ball with pinpoint accuracy all over the court. He did not lose another game, performing more like the player ranked 15th nationally in the 14-and-under division by the U.S. Tennis Association.
"I haven't had to give 100 percent for a whole match all season because I know I'll win," said Lissner, who finished the regular season 18-0. "It's just not really a challenge." He enters postseason play looking to become the first Centennial boys' singles player to win county, region and state titles in the same season.
"As soon as we got to 3-3, I could see he was going to take the match over," said Mount Hebron freshman Aaron Romano. "He'll let you think you have a chance, and then all of a sudden he takes the match over and hits it anywhere he wants."
Lissner was a major reason Centennial's boys' team ended the season 18-0 after defeating River Hill in Monday's county championship match at the Wilde Lake Tennis Center. Lissner is the top seed for this week's four-round county tournament at the Wilde Lake Tennis Center, which began yesterday afternoon and ends Saturday. The top four players in boys' singles, girls' singles, boys' doubles, girls' doubles and mixed doubles then advance to the region tournament, at the Wilde Lake Tennis Center on May 22 and 23.
"Ryan's definitely the favorite to win the county championship," said River Hill Coach Matt Graves. "But when Ryan gets to regionals, he's going to see some players who are a lot better than what's he's seen so far, and it will be interesting to see how he does."
Lissner said he occasionally gets bored playing county matches, which leads him to try things seldom seen from top singles players, including an underhand serve.
But he understands there is more to tennis than high school competition. He trains five days a week at the Tennis Center at College Park, working with a coach and practicing against some of the area's best high school players.
He has played in prestigious tournaments in Arizona, New York, California and Pittsburgh. He recently placed fourth out of 128 players at the Easter Bowl tournament in Palm Springs, Calif., after which his USTA ranking jumped 10 spots.
"I want to play on the pro tour someday, and even if I want to get a college scholarship, this is what I have to do," Lissner said. "There are a lot of great players at those tournaments, and those are the players who really challenge me."
Lissner said he plays for Centennial because it's fun and he enjoys the camaraderie.
"Ryan's so good, but he's always helping me with my strategy and with my backhand," said freshman Eric Lucas, who is 15-2 playing with Tim Aballo at No. 2 doubles. "He also has shown me how to hit this cool between-the-legs-shot."
Though Lissner is unsure if he'll return to the Eagles next year, Coach Jean Vanderpool is hoping she won't have to look for another No. 1 singles player.
"Ryan has a true love for the game and is very knowledgeable, but he just doesn't go out there and play the way he's capable of because he'll try different things and try to make things interesting," Vanderpool said. "But he's good for Howard County tennis because you always want the best kids to play, and he's good for our team."