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Bluegrass Gold

Hunter Horton sweeps both titles at Kentucky Clay Court Championship

Posted: September 9, 2014 6:37 p.m.
Updated: September 10, 2014 5:00 a.m.
Photo provided/

HUNTER HORTON EARNED AAA-AAAA All-State tennis honors at Lugoff-Elgin this past spring.

There’s gold in the clay of the Bluegrass State.
At least, there was for Hunter Horton.
Traveling from his home in Lugoff to Louisville for the Kentucky State Clay Court Championships last month, the junior at Lugoff-Elgin High School returned from the rain-soaked event by winning both the 18 singles and 18 doubles championships.
The two titles were the latest honors for Horton, who plays number one singles for Edward Rickwood’s Demons in the spring. In May, as a sophomore, Horton earned South Carolina High School League AAA-AAAA All-State laurels after winning three matches in the state individual championship tournament. He followed that by taking both the 16 and 18 doubles titles at the South Carolina Level 3 tournament played in Irmo on Aug. 3, which came after his playing in the Southern Sectional Zone Team event at Wake Forest University in July.
The twin titles in Derbytown were part of a jam-packed spring and summer slate of events for Horton, who swept his way to the South Carolina Junior Clay Court singles and doubles crowns in 2013. In fact, the main reason he found his way to Louisville was that the event fit into his busy schedule while being the closest one in the southeast region at that time.
Being the lone singles player in the tournament draw of 64 to receive a bye, Horton breezed to three straight-set wins in his first three pairings before rebounding from a 0-6 setback in the first set against George Akmon, of the host city, in the finals before rebounding to take the championship with a 7-5 victory in the second set and then riding his wave of momentum into capturing the tie-breaker, 10-1.
With a strong pedigree on clay, Horton and the other players were thrown a curveball by Mother Nature when rains in the first two days of the event forced the matches to be played indoors. With that, Horton was forced to switch on the fly in playing on the hard court surface.
“The indoor courts are a lot faster than the clay courts,” said the 16-year-old. “We moved to the clay courts for the finals. I played five matches on the indoor courts.”
With a roof over his head, Horton played his way to a pair of 6-1 wins over Mathew Maynard from Knoxville, Tenn. Next came a 6-4, 6-4 victory over Luke Least from Versailles, Ky., which put the fourth-seeded Horton into the semifinals against Cole McCreary, the number one seed from Louisa, Ky. Keeping his string of sweeps intact, Horton punched his ticket into the finals by taking down McCreary by identical 6-2 scores.
With the weather having broken, the singles finals were moved outdoors to the clay court and Horton struggled in trying to adjust his game back to the slower surface as evidenced by his 6-0 first set defeat.
“It was pretty bad,” he said of transitioning from the quicker indoor surface back to clay. “I was missing everything to begin the first set. I couldn’t get anything going at all, even if I wanted to.”
With his back to the wall, Horton settled himself down, regained his composure and started getting into a rhythm. Once hitting some winners, his confidence swelled as Horton survived a tough second set before overpowering Akmon in the third set tie-breaker.
“I got myself back into it and I knew I could beat him,” Horton said of his meeting with Akmon, a player who like Horton was not yet 18 and whom he has seen at various tournament stops throughout the region.
 “I just relaxed. I knew I could beat the kid and I knew I was just as good as him. It was just self-belief. I knew I could come back and win the match so, I just calmed myself down, started playing smart and got myself back into it.”
While Horton knew what to expect of himself in playing in the older age group in Louisville, he had no idea what to expect in the doubles side of the event. The doubles tandems were paired by the tournament director.
Horton’s playing partner was Louisville’s Jordan Knot. Together, the newly aligned duo was awarded the number one seed and received a first round bye. Once on the court, Horton and Knot defeated the Knoxville, Tenn., tandem of Gary Carter and Matthew Maynard, in the semifinals, 8-6, before beating another pair from Knoxville, Aubrey Davis and Hunter Millsaps, 8-6, to give Horton a clean sweep in the event.
“Usually,” Horton said of the doubles portion of the tourney, “the partners I play with, I’ve played with them before. This time, I just came into it and I didn’t know what to expect. We had two matches to get through and we had some difficulty in getting some momentum going, at first. But in the finals, we played a lot better. We got all the kinks out of the way and started playing better.”
Having played the entire high school season and most of the summer on hard courts, Horton headed to Top Spin in Lexington a few days before traveling to Louisville to practice on the clay court surface. It was the first time he had practiced or played on clay since earlier in the summer.
 “I’d say, two days of practice would be good to get used to it,” he said of the time needed to get back into the swing of things on clay. “It’s a lot different because the bounces are so much different. I don’t know if you can be fully prepared to play on clay.”
“I like clay pretty well, though. I’ve had some of my best results on clay so, I don’t mind it.”
Playing in Louisville against players who were mostly older than he was helped prepare Hunter Horton for what life will be like once he gets to the 18s. After a few days at home in Lugoff, he was off to Georgia for the Southern A Tournament. While not knowing the surface there, Horton smiled while saying that in the end, everything usually works out for all the players.
“It doesn’t really matter,” he said as to the playing surface. “Players are matched up evenly and the surface doesn’t matter that much. It makes how you play different but usually, the better players are going to win. It’s just who is going to play smarter that day and who is going to make fewer errors.”
Horton has added weight and height to his frame in the year from his having won the South Carolina Junior Clay Court title to his Kentucky championship. Not only has his appearance changed, but so too has his game. He no longer spends most of time along the back line. Instead, he has developed a net game which has made him an even more complete player.
 “I come in a lot more than I used to,” he said of his coming to the net and putting pressure on his opponents. “I used to just play back and just play a lot of balls. Now, I have a pretty good serve; I’ve worked on that a lot and have won a lot of games with that part of my game.
“Now, when you’re playing older kids, it’s about holding your serve and getting one or two breaks --- breaking another person’s serve --- a set.”
With two more seasons left to play high school tennis, Horton is beginning to formulate a set of colleges which he would like to attend and play tennis, along with furthering his academic endeavors. Now, he is a student-athlete who college coaches can talk to and, he expects to hear from several over the next year or so. “I’m open to anything, right now,” he said when asked about college.
Just like Hunter Horton embraced the idea of playing against the older kids … and winning.

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