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Alexey Kalinin, a former UB star, is the area’s No. 1-ranked male tennis player for 2013.

After winning an earlier Miller Tennis Center tournament in May over former UB tennis teammate Damian David, 6-1, 6-2, he solidified his No. 1 ranking by defeating former UB tennis great Vusa Hove (who was the area’s top ranked player for 2010, 2011, and 2012) in the Miller $22,000 tournament this past July. The scores were 7-6, 6-4 as Kalinin used his all-around game, which included frequent trips to the net and uncanny drop shots at crucial times to earn the victory.

“Vusa and I are good friends and former teammates,” Kalinin said. “However, when he and I step onto the court no holds are barred. I knew that it was going to be a tough match and I want to congratulate Vusa for his great play in the final.”

Kalinin, who is from the city of Naberezhnye Chelny in Russia, inherited his outstanding athletic skills from his parents. His father, Anatoly, was ranked in the top five in Russia in Motor Cross Sports, and his mother, Rimma, was ranked in the nation’s top 10 in cross country skiing.

As a youngster Kalinin played some basketball and volleyball. At the age of 10 he and his father started to play tennis together. It was evident that Alexey had some outstanding skills even though he wasn’t taking any lessons.

After hitting for only about six months he entered his first 12-under tournament. He was soundly beaten, 6-0, 6-0. Three months later he defeated the same player by the scores of 6-3, 6-3.

What was the difference? “Instead of trying to hit every shot as hard as I could I concentrated on keeping the ball in play as long as I could,” Kalinin said.

Kalinin started taking lessons from local pro Alla Podgornaya. She played in the French Open’s 45-over division. She was very technical in her teaching and would feed many balls to him in order that he would attain the right strokes and hit the ball correctly. He would also practice by the hour in front of a mirror, watching himself hit forehands and backhands.

“Although some players may feel it was a strange way to practice in this manner I was able to translate what I was watching in the mirror onto the tennis courts,” Kalinin said.

For the next year and a half he played many 12-under tournaments in Russia and was ranked as high as 80th in the country. Unfortunately, due to playing so many tournaments, practicing endlessly, and taking lessons, Kalinin was totally burned out. He decided to not to play any competitive tennis for awhile but would continue just to hit once or twice a week. To fill the time he took up cross country skiing and became one of the top competitors in the 14-under division.

Almost two years later, the urge to play tennis returned. He started working with Podgornaya again and his father watched all of his lessons. Podgornaya worked strongly on improving his competitive nature, making him stronger, and being mentally tougher. Kalinin returned to competition and played in many junior tournaments. Although he greatly enjoyed playing he was very frustrated with his results.

“Even though I was still hitting great I had lost the feel for the ball,” Kalinin said.

After long discussions with his father they decided that Alexey would move to Spain to live and train at the Sergio Bruguera Tennis Academy. Kalinin got to hit with Bruguera, who was a two-time French Open champion and eventually was taught by Fernando Luna, who was once ranked 33rd in the world.

“Luna was a fantastic pro,” Kalinin said. “He worked heavily on my hitting heavy topspin on both my forehand and backhand ground strokes. We also worked on hitting the ball with great height over the net and developing great touch at the net and on my drop shots.”

Once Kalinin’s game started to improve by leaps and bounds he started playing tournaments almost every weekend. During the week his every day schedule was a grueling one. From 9-11 a.m. he would play tennis, from 11-12:30 he would work on fitness, then break for lunch. After lunch he would play more tennis for an hour and a half; then conclude with another hour of fitness.

Kalinin was loving the competition in Barcelona because of so many outstanding juniors. He reached the quarterfinals and semifinals of quite a few tournaments and the finals of two others. Since all of his matches were on clay courts he had developed a great feel for the ball and was very consistent. His outstanding play helped him attain a ranking of 770 in the International Federation Rankings.

After moving back home he played many local tournaments and did extremely well. Upon graduating from high school he sent emails and videos to a few schools, including Mercer University and UB.

Nick Ziezuila, the assistant men’s tennis coach at UB, contacted Kalinin and told him that they were very interested in offering him a scholarship to play for UB. Shortly after, Sharif Zaher, the UB head coach, contacted Kalinin and said that he would definitely be getting a scholarship.

“Zaher was a great coach,” Kalinin said. “He worked with me on my game and was outstanding on instilling the psychological part of the game in me.”

After Zaher left for another coaching position, Lee Nickell became the new coach. “Coach Nickell’s approach to the game was a little different than Zaher’s,” Kalinin said. “He worked with us as a team. Everyone was accountable to each other. He is a great motivator and made everyone more competitive and aggressive on the court.” Kalinin played third singles as a freshman and third to sixth singles from his sophomore to senior years.

He is now a pre-med student at UB and is a teaching pro at Miller Tennis Center.

“We have a great junior program at the club and teaching tennis provides me with a chance to relax when I am not studying,” Kalinin said.

Hove to be inducted

Vusa Hove will be inducted into the Muny Tennis Hall of Fame as part of the Buffalo Tennis Hall of Fame dinner on Jan. 5 at the Transit Valley Golf Club. Hove’s induction is based on his phenomenal success in the Men’s Open division for the past four years, in which he has gone undefeated without dropping a set.

email: thegreatgar@verizon.net