Only 35 miles separates Alexander Nielsen from the hometown of his opponent, Terrence McGrath.
Yet, Nielsen, who is from Manhattan, found himself Tuesday facing off with McGrath (Stamford, Conn.) on the courts at Rapid City’s Sioux Park Tennis Complex and about as far from home as someone from a borough of New York City can get, environmentally.
But Sioux Park is where the two East Coast players found themselves Tuesday trading groundstrokes and chasing United States Tennis Association (USTA) ranking points
Neilsen, a quiet 17-year-old, rarely sees surroundings like those of the Black Hills when he travels over the summer months to USTA events like this week’s Mount Rushmore National Junior Level 3 tennis tournament in Rapid City.
“It’s pretty far removed from Manhattan,” Nielsen said after knocking off McGrath to advance in the Boys 18 consolation bracket. “Obviously, having the tournament called the Mount Rushmore – and knowing (the monument) was here – this tournament became a great opportunity to come to a place like South Dakota.”
Nielsen, like many of the 127 junior players from 36 states in Rapid City this week, are chasing USTA ranking points while in Rapid City. Rankings points create opportunities within the USTA junior program.
“This kids have to win some matches and get enough points to be able to come here,” explained Rapid City Stevens tennis coach Jason Olson, who helped run the tournament. “You could be a state high school champion, but you couldn't come here if you didn't play some USTA tournaments.”
Olson said about nearly all of the junior players competing in the Mount Rushmore tournament are good enough to play NCAA Division I or II college tennis. He dropped the names of some of Rapid City’s best prep players – Billy Paluch, Jack Hamburg and Whitney Paluch among them – and said the level of expertise among these players was equal to or greater than that of the local greats.
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“Almost every single kid here is at least at that skill level,” Olson said.
This is the second year Rapid City has hosted the Mount Rushmore national tournament. It is one of four National Level 3 junior events held across the nation for the 18 and 14 age groups. Given the tournament is awarded by bid, Olson hopes Rapid City can become a regular host of Level 3 junior tournaments.
“People want to come back here,” Olson said. “Last year we had people in the girls 14 tournament tell us to get the 16s here, because they wanted to come back again.”
Olson struck up a fast friendship with Nielsen because Olson is a Yankee fan and Nielsen lives in the ball club’s home city. But it’s also the family atmosphere here that makes USTA appealing from both a competition standpoint and because there are so many unique things to do in the Black Hills.
“Some of the guys are going to hike M Hill. Another is going flyfishing as soon as he's done,” Olson said. “You just can't beat Rapid City, from the parks to the hills to the lakes.”
Nielsen, who plans to visit Mount Rushmore before heading home, echoed Olson’s sentiments about coming to play here.
“It’s definitely a much more relaxed environment,” Nielsen said. “And not so hot, like when I was in Florida to play.”