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King of Clay

L-E rising sophomore, Hunter Horton, cops a pair of state clay court tennis titles

Posted: August 6, 2013 1:47 p.m.
Updated: August 9, 2013 5:00 a.m.
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HUNTER HORTON IS RAPIDLY moving up both the state and Southern region junior USTA standings.

Don’t call Hunter Horton a clay court specialist.
Sure, the rising sophomore at Lugoff-Elgin High School is coming off a sweep of the 2013 South Carolina Closed Junior Clay Court State Championship, taking the crown in both singles and doubles at the Greenville event in the boys’ 16 division. But to pigeonhole Horton into being a one surface wonder would be like saying Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson can win only on the short tracks.
This past spring, on the hard court, Horton played first singles for the second straight season at L-E. And, for the second time in as many seasons, the young Demons’ program earned a berth in the 4A state playoffs with Horton helping lead the team to an 11-4 record while rapidly becoming one of the top young players in the state.
Unlike some professional tennis players who make their name for themselves on the clay at the Roland Garros Stadium in the French Open and then go into hibernation until the Grand Slam event returns to Paris the following year, Horton embraces both surfaces, especially following his having won the biggest titles of his young career the final weekend of July in the Upstate.
“I’d rather play on hard court,” admitted the 15-year-old. “But clay courts were good to me (that) weekend. I think that I’ve finally figured out how to play on clay.”
Horton’s recent performance in Greenville, which should return him to the top 10 United States Tennis Association (USTA) players in the state at 16 years old after he fell to number 17 when making the move up to the next age division, was in stark contrast to a year ago in which he won his first round pairing on the clay before falling in the round of 16. That showing did little to deter him from carrying a healthy dose of confidence along with his tennis gear to this year’s tourney.
Saying his pre-tournament goal was to win the championship “because I knew I could,” Horton, whose goal is to get into the top 100 rankings of USTA players in the South, used the three days leading up to the tourney to acclimate himself to playing on the slower clay surface. The extra work paid off.
“The clay courts are a lot slower,” he said of the difference between clay courts and the more common hard courts. “The bounce of the ball is a lot different. The ball sits up more on clay.
“I usually play on hard courts so, it usually affects my timing when I play on a clay court. It can really mess you up because some of the balls will bounce a whole lot different on a clay court than they will on the hard court.”
Horton did not drop a set en route to the championship. He was tested in the round of 16 by Nathan Morris before coming away with a 6-4, 7-5 win. He then won by identical 6-4 scores in a quarterfinal victory over Britton Bellamy. A slow start in the semifinals produced a 7-5 victory in the first set over Andrew Wetzel before Horton rolled to a sweep by taking the second set, 6-1.
That set up a finals pairing against Horton’s doubles partner, Thomas Bryan of Lexington. The pair took the state championship in an 8-3 pro set win in the finals. As for squaring off with each other in the singles finale, it was not exactly a match which Horton was hoping to play.
“I really don’t like to play against my friends,” Horton said. “I would rather play against anybody else. The last two times I played him, he beat me. This time, I decided that I was going to win.”
The two friends showed up minutes before their scheduled match time and there were little time for pleasantries to be exchanged. Once on the court, Horton kept of streak of straight set wins going by earning the state championship by knocking off Bryan, 6-3, 7-5.
Not having to go into a tie-breaker, Horton said, was a good thing since playing on clay is more physically taxing than playing on hard courts.
“Playing on clay courts,” he said, “you have to change your game because, on clay courts, there are going to be longer rallies than there are on hard courts. On hard courts, the rallies are a lot shorter.
 “You have to use your legs more on clay. If you use your legs more on clay, good stuff will happen to you.”
“Good stuff” did, indeed, come Horton’s way on clay, a surface which he had gained more of a sense of appreciation for over the past two summers. after returning home from a mid-week tennis lesson in Lexington.
“It’s easier to go from clay to hard court. But if you train on hard court all the time, it’s going to be harder to hit on clay.”
Playing several times a year on clay, Horton plays tennis year ‘round, using the weekends to compete in tournaments. His daily routine is practicing for an hour and a half each weekday. His workouts could be with his instructors in Lexington or, heading over to Scott Park in Camden to hit tennis balls which come his way from a machine.
In all instances, it has propelled Horton to new heights in the state rankings which help the tennis fortunes of Coach Edward Rickwood’s Demons at Lugoff-Elgin in the spring.
“A lot of the high school kids, other than one and two (singles players), don’t play in tournaments,” Horton said. “That experience really helps you a lot because you learn what you need to do.”
Horton has been playing on the L-E varsity squad for three seasons. As a seventh-grader, he played behind his brother Tyler, a 2011 L-E graduate who signed on with USC-Lancaster. It was Tyler’s decision to play tennis which spurred his younger brother to take up the sport. And once the tennis bug bit Hunter Horton, it never released its grip on the then pre-middle schooler.
“I started by just hitting around in the fifth grade. Then, I started getting serious about it in the sixth grade,” he said of his tennis beginnings.
“My brother wanted to play tennis because they just started the tennis team at Lugoff-Elgin and, he would go out and hit so I decided to go out and hit with him. I started playing in a few tournaments when I was in the sixth grade and, it got to where I liked it a lot.”
With his older brother on the team, Hunter’s path to number one singles position at L-E was blocked. Once Tyler had picked up his diploma, it opened the door to the top spot for Hunter, who has thrived in that slot for the past two years.
While there is pressure which comes with the role of being a number one player for any team, Horton said, in this instance, that has not been so much the case over the past two years.
“Sometimes there is (pressure) because, a lot of times, you are going to be playing seniors, juniors or, kids older than you,” he said. “Some of the kids are really good. It helps you, though.
“I think there’s more pressure on the older kid because he should beat me. They’re under more pressure than I am, most of the time.”
While enjoying the team aspect of tennis in the spring, Horton also relishes the chance to play in singles tournament. In this format, he said, there is no room for excuses; there is no one to blame for a loss than the person you see staring back at you when you look in the mirror.
“In tennis tournaments, it’s just you,” he said. “There’s no one else and, if you’re playing good, most of the time you’re going to win. It’s not like a team sport. You’re out there by yourself … there’s nobody else.”
Having taken his lumps early on in his tennis tournament career, Hunter Horton is making up for lost time and is passing players, his age and older, at a steady clip in tournaments as well as in high school play. With a personal motto of “hard work pays off,” Horton strives to continue on this upward trend in the hopes that his tennis-playing ability and work in the classroom will take him where he wants to go in school as well as in life.
In order to get to where he wants to go, Horton said he is working to continue improving his footwork as well as his backhand. With all the tools to be successful, the final piece of the puzzle is to keep working hard and doing all he can, both on and off the court.
“Just keep on winning,” he said when asked to look into his future.
“I just want to keep winning because it will help me get into college and get a scholarship for tennis so I can get a good education and then, get a good job.”

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