LANSING | Thornton Fractional tennis player Juan Hurtado wants his picture on the wall at T.F. South High School among the other accomplished Rebels athletes.
Last week, Hurtado came within one match of joining the heralded list. The senior reached the South Suburban Conference finals at No. 2 singles, only to be beset by leg cramps during warm-ups. Hurtado sought assistance from the athletic trainer before and during the match against Lemont's Alex Vasoc to no avail, as Hurtado fell in straight sets, 6-1, 6-3.
It was the only loss of the season at singles for Hurtado, who started the year at No. 1 doubles.
"I could have won that match," Hurtado said. "I was cramping too much. I called for the trainer four times, trying to fight it out. A different day would have been a different result."
Hurtado will have a second shot at that wall, starting this afternoon at the Homewood-Flossmoor Sectional. The two-day event, which also includes local players from Marian Catholic, Illiana Christian, Thornwood Co-op and host H-F, will take the top four finishers in singles and doubles and advance them on to next week's state tournament, hosted by Hersey High School.
Though he enters the tournament unseeded, the confident Hurtado believes he has a shot of surviving the difficult tournament, which includes one of the best singles players in the state, Marian's Julian Childers.
"I'm anxious to start," Hurtado said. "I just want to play as hard as I can and win the three matches I'll need to go downstate. It'll take a little luck, because I'll be playing against kids who have been playing the sport for 10 years."
Hurtado said he wonders every day what an earlier introduction to the sport would have meant to his high school career. Hurtado said he joined the T.F. tennis teams as a sophomore at the urging of his friend, Steve Patino.
"We were always competitive with things, so when it was suggested that I play, I did it," Hurtado said. "Now I love the sport. It is relaxing, being on the court, and it is a gentleman's sport."
Hurtado played doubles for two years before coach Clinton Scott decided to break up the playing partnership with Patino after two matches this year. The results caught even Scott by surprise.
"He has been a diamond in the rough," Scott said of Hurtado. "When I moved him to singles, at first Juan was angry, but after that first singles match, he was hooked."
Hurtado dominated the No. 2 singles competition he faced, winning 14 straight matches before last week's loss in the conference finals.
"I put a lot of effort into my tennis for three years, but I have been surprised at my season," Hurtado said. "The win streak gave me more confidence about my game, more confidence to go out and play every game aggressively."
Hurtado does not see an end in sight to his tennis career, no matter the result of this weekend's sectional tournament. In the fall, he will attend the University of Illinois at Chicago on a full academic scholarship. In between studies that he hopes will lead him to degrees in accounting and business administration, Hurtado hopes to walk on to the tennis team.
"He found his niche with singles this year, got into a groove and has found a way to win matches," Scott said. "Who knows how good he'd be if he started to play the sport sooner, but right now, he's still improving."