Area players all have mutual respect for each other

Before his second round match in the district tournament in Canton last Friday, Lakeview junior Aaron Paczak was feeling nervous, just not entirely for himself.

The junior watched fellow competitor and friend Garrett Gardner of Poland start his second-round match against Sid Ahuja of Hawken and was cheering him on for the win. Long after going to his own match against Beachwood’s Karan Gill, Paczak heard his actions from earlier reciprocated.

“He came over, and I heard him cheering for me when I was playing the end of my match,” Paczak said. “I was pretty happy for him, he was happy for me. Jad (Abdul-Aal) just dominated his draw, so I’m happy for him, too.”

This is what it’s like for the three area tennis state qualifiers – Lakeview’s Paczak, Poland’s Gardner and John F. Kennedy’s Abdul-Aal. Although they are rivals on the court with each having played the others at least once during their runs to the state tournament this Friday at the Ohio State Outdoor Varsity Tennis Courts in Columbus, they are all friends off it.

“There’s always a friendly rivalry with me, Jad and Aaron Paczak,” Gardner said. “We’ve always trained with each other, and we’ve always respected each others’ games. We’re never enemies off the court. When it comes down to gametime, we might get a little mean, but off the court, it’s always a good handshake or a hug and saying, ‘Good job out there, you did well.’

“Our relationships have always been very good, very strong. There’s never been any arguments after a match – it’s always been clean.”

Each of the players have known each other for a long time, having played against one another in club matches and United States Tennis Association-sanctioned tournaments starting before they were in high school.

Abdul-Aal and Gardner played country club tennis and hitting together in practice. Despite going back and forth in their early days, Garrett has got the best of him in the postseason tournaments, winning in both the sectional and district finals in straight sets.

“Garrett and I have been playing since we were 12,” Abdul-Aal said. “In every match we play, it could go either way. Recently, he’s taken the last couple.

“He’s a scrapper. He doesn’t miss anything, and no matter where you put the ball, no matter how good you hit it, you have to expect it to come back.”

Gardner shows the same respect to Abdul-Aal, pointing to the Kennedy senior’s time at the Nick Bollettieri Junior Tennis Academy near Bradenton, Fla., for the first two years of his high school career.

“That’s where all of the juniors go if they want to make it on the pro tour,” Gardner said of the Bollettieri Academy. “When I heard Jad went there, I was shell shocked. I knew Jad was going to be a heck of a player one day, and we all knew that Jad was going to be a great competitor.”

As for Paczak and Gardner, the two have met on multiple occasions in both the high school spring tennis seasons but have squared off on numerous occasions in UTSA tournaments.

According to Paczak, one of the best matches between the two came in the Northeastern Ohio Tennis Association Midwest qualifier at the Boardman Tennis Center after each’s freshman year in high school. The match went to three sets in favor of Gardner, but Paczak said it was one of the best matches in which he played.

“I really started knowing (Paczak) my freshman year,” Gardner said. “We’d played each other a few times at club matches, but when it came down to high school, that’s when we really started battling each other. He has all the height in the world on him. He was very intimidating when I first saw him. He’s another great competitor and highly respectable player.”

Whether these guys will square off again this season is unclear, as Paczak and Gardner need to win two matches to play each other in the state semifinals. Abdul-Aal could only face one of them in the state championship.

Considering the draws they received on Monday, it will be tough to see those scenarios played out on Friday and possibly Saturday at the Ohio State Outdoor Varsity Tennis Courts in Columbus. Abdul-Aal faces the second seed out of the Columbus district, Columbus Bishop Watterson’s Ryan Bibo, Paczak has Abdul-Aal’s first round opponent from last season and first seed out of the southwest district, Cincinnati Country Day School’s Asher Hirsch, and Gardner takes on the third seed from the southwest district, Cincinnati Seven Hill’s John Larkin.

If they do meet, expect the friendships to be left outside the fence and the gloves to come off.

“We’re really good friends off the court, but when it’s on the court, there’s no mercy between us,” Paczak said. “We bring it against each other.”