When Derek Ralet learned he'd be spending a year as a foreign exchange student, the 19-year-old Belgian was told by the staff at the World Exchange Program that he couldn't choose a specific city or town -- only a preferred country. That choice was easy.
"I chose USA because I could learn some English and play sports," said Ralet, a senior at Old Mill who arrived in the United States in September and is staying with a host family in Severn.
The sport in which he excels most is tennis. Ralet, who stands 6 feet 4 (he'll tell you 1.93 meters), has not lost a single set this spring -- in 11 regular season, four county championship and three Region IV matches. Eighteen opponents up, 18 down. But one more hurdle remains.
Beginning tomorrow, Ralet will begin competition in the 16-player Maryland state boys' singles tennis championships. Two players from each of eight regions around the state will begin first-round action at the University of Maryland in College Park. There is also competition in girls' singles, in which Severna Park's Allison Daciek is a strong contender, and in boys' and girls' doubles and mixed doubles.
"When he gets to the state tournament, there's going to be a whole [different] level of player he's going to see," Old Mill Coach Krissy Dryden said of Ralet. "It'll be good for him to be challenged."
When a tennis player wins a set 6-0, the slang used is that he "bageled" his opponent -- the 0 resembles a bagel. Ralet didn't bagel his foes in every match this season, but he certainly dominated them. The latest victim was Severna Park's Matt Bulkley. Ralet disposed of Bulkley in straight sets to win the county championship earlier this month, then defeated him, 6-3, 6-0, two weeks ago in the Region IV finals. The regular and postseason matches against Ralet were Bulkley's only losses this season.
"I'm kind of consistent," said Ralet, a mild-mannered young man who has played in an estimated 150 or so junior tournaments in Belgium over the past five years. "I don't give a lot of points away." When asked what the best part of his game is, he pauses, not wanting to tout his talents. "I guess my serve," he said.
Ralet first took up tennis at age 10 because his older brother was playing the game and "because we lived close to a tennis club." He says it's the No. 2 sport in Belgium, behind, of course, soccer. Ralet also played soccer last fall on the Old Mill varsity team, which advanced to the 4A state championship game.
Ralet is a big fan of Russian professional and former U.S. Open champion Marat Safin, and he hit balls a few times with former ATP Tour pro Arnaud Fontaine. Fontaine and Ralet have the same coach.
He said that turning professional is a dream of his -- but that he's being realistic at this point in his life.
"I'm going to practice, but I'm not going to bet everything on my tennis because I know there's little chance that I can earn [substantial] money with that," he said. "But still, I'm going to keep practicing to see how far I can go."
His hosts are Andy and Karen McPhail and their two daughters, ages 8 and 10. Ralet's high school, like others in Brussels, does not field various sports teams as is the norm in the United States. That was one thing about coming to the United States that made him very happy, Ralet said. And Andy McPhail noted that Ralet got a surprise upon his arrival.
"Girls don't play soccer where he's from," McPhail said. "He was amazed that girls were playing. And he was also stunned at the [superb] condition of the [soccer] fields here."