Paul Laurence Dunbar's Chaz Shelton says he is more accustomed to playing in pairs, but that didn't prevent him from scoring a pair of victories as an individual on Thursday's opening day of the KHSAA State Tennis Tournament.
Shelton, a junior, is ranked as a No. 9-16 seed in the tournament despite this being his first singles appearance in the event in his first season that he has fully committed to his singles play.
"I think I have a niche for doubles," Shelton said. "I like doubles because it is more fun, but singles is definitely my game."
Although Shelton's mom, Amy, said that he has been playing tennis since he was a toddler when his grandma used to toss balls across the net for him to volley, Shelton's new-found success in singles has occurred rather suddenly with some help from a mentor.
"We got a new coach from Colorado, and that really helped me a lot," Shelton said.
The "coach from Colorado" is Nate Balk, who is in his first season at the helm of Dunbar tennis.
Balk, who also has more of an affinity for doubles than singles, and Shelton bonded immediately.
"I told (Shelton) not to lose his love of doubles, but to take his doubles love to singles," Balk said.
Even more instrumental to Shelton's singles success was the confidence Balk instilled in Shelton and the change in the direction of Dunbar tennis, whereby Balk asked his players for a "varsity effort" in order to play varsity tennis.
Balk gave Shelton simple rules to follow to become more confident: trust your shot and trust yourself. "Varsity effort" translated to at least five practices a week, a dedication to conditioning and Shelton evolving into more of a leader for his team and improving his forehand shot.
Consequently, Shelton has garnered interest from colleges, including Lipscomb, Centre and Transylvania.
The results of Balk's lessons and Shelton's commitment were clear Thursday at UK's Boone Tennis Complex. In his first-round match, Shelton cruised to a 6-0, 6-2 win over Louisville Trinity senior Patrick Richardson.
"(Shelton) had a more consistent game today, he clearly was the dominant player," Trinity assistant coach Paul Vale said.
Shelton said before his afternoon session he didn't have a good warm-up, and early in his second-round match against Paris senior Shriver Withrow he was trying to find his rhythm from earlier in the day.
Following his struggles early in the first set, Shelton went up a break at 3-2 en route to a 6-2, 6-1 victory to book his place in the round of 16.
Shelton's confidence was buoyed by winning a grueling three-set semifinal match at the 11th Region Tournament over Henry Clay senior Brad Merchant, also a No. 9-16 seed at the state tournament, so Shelton said he knows he can match up with the top players in the state even though he's in an unfamiliar position.
"I think I'm about the same as everyone else," Shelton said of his relative inexperience as a singles player at this level of competition. "I've been playing with some of these kids since I was 8 years old, so I don't think it should hold me back too much."
Naturally, Balk echoed the same confident sentiments as his pupil.
"(Shelton) is a dark horse, and everything he's done up to this point is completely gravy because he doesn't have the same expectations as some of the other players who expect to be in the semifinals and finals," Balk said.
"He's coached me just as much as I've coached him. It's a partnership."