Gus Benson of Richmond Model has always been a tennis player capable of unleashing rocket shots that can take down opponents.
His serve has been timed as high as 132 mph, and his returns can pack a punch, too.
But over the past few years Benson has learned to pick his spots to use his power, when to take something off his "fastball," and that's made him one of the top high school players in the state.
Seeded third in this week's KHSAA State Championships, Benson breezed through the first two rounds on Thursday. He beat James Bryant of Morgan County 6-0, 6-0, and Logan Sparks of West Jessamine 6-1, 6-1 in cool, windy conditions at the University of Kentucky's Hilary J. Boone Varsity Tennis Complex.
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Benson, who's played high school tennis since he was in fifth grade, relied exclusively on his power game when he was younger.
"I used to pull the trigger a little too fast," he said. "I was trying to hit winners when they weren't there."
Model Coach Ric Hernandez noted that when "Gus was younger, he was full bore all the time. He hit it as hard as he could all the time."
But as Benson got older he got wiser and started thinking how to set up shots.
"I've gotten a lot smarter," he said, "about waiting for the right time to hit it big."
Part of that wisdom came with natural maturation.
"As he got older, he took the pride element out of it," Hernandez said. "He quit worrying about trying to look like the coolest player, and that got him to another level.
"Now he's more creative, figuring out how to dissect and construct points. He's become a student of the game."
Benson admits he gave up "cool" and "powerful" to expand his game, even if it means holstering his 130-mph serve.
He'll now occasionally use a "kick-serve," one with more spin and not as much speed.
"It's still effective, but everybody's not going 'Whoa! Hey!' like when I hit it big."
Benson credits private lessons in Richmond and at UK for helping his game progress to the point where he drew recruiting looks from East Tennessee State (his coach's alma mater), Northern Kentucky and Western Kentucky, among others.
But a few months ago he accepted an offer to walk on at UK, which fulfilled a long-held dream. "I bleed blue," he said. "I've always wanted to play at UK, so when I got the opportunity I took it."
Benson hopes to make it a long stay on the UK courts this weekend.
He made it to the state tournament's round of 16 as a freshman and sophomore, and advanced to the quarterfinals last year.
Described by his coach as "very goal-oriented," Benson would love to play for a state title come Saturday afternoon.
"Definitely," he said. "I've been thinking about it since I lost last year. I want to win it ... this is my last go-around in high school."
■ Madeline Rolph of Sayre, who won the state title as a sophomore last year, had a first-round bye on Thursday, then won her second-round match against Natalie Dearen of South Oldham 6-0, 6-0.
Rolph, the top seed, will face Morgan Malone of Ballard in the round of 16 Friday morning.