MASON — There was finally a reason to have some nerves creep up heading into a match. An opponent who was a state semifinalist last year stood between Tucker Culpepper and a berth in the Division II state tournament.
A more comparable skill level and overall formidable opponent in Jack Pollock of Indian Hill across the net, his dad, Brian, locked in from the bleacher seating and mother, Kristie, pacing between each point, Tucker was unwavering in his abilities. A 6-3, 6-3, win guaranteed his spot on Friday back in Mason at the Lindner Family Tennis Center for the state tournament and was the most the freshman has been challenged so far.
“He’s a lot better of a player than I’ve seen a lot of this year,” Tucker said of Pollock. “Especially in the match to qualify for state there’s nerves on both sides. Just needed to know how to use mine against his to get the advantage.”
There’s not been many nerves to release for the fast rising player this season. In his initial five sectional and district matches, he only lost a single game with four love-love victories with a sectional title attained. The scoreline was also routinely achieved during his regular season matches.
Tucker said he felt it would be 50-50 on his chances to make it this far when he thought about it earlier this year, but always believed in his abilities and had full faith in himself heading into the quarterfinal match.
“I thought that I was going to win,” he said. “Always have confidence. If you think you’re going to lose, you’re going to lose. If it hasn’t happened yet, why think you are going to lose?”
Originally getting into tennis around six years old, the idea was to give a kid full of energy a way to release it. Other interests popped up over the years and he continued to play, including in several USTA tournaments, but it was not until the summer of 2021 before Tucker decided to focus on the sport.
A good showing at a competition in Michigan left an imprint of how progress in skill and Tucker said he got caught up in it.
“I just wanted to get really good,” he said. “I saw improvement. Since December, I’ve really buckled down and started improving a lot in the last couple months.”
Kristie said she saw the love for the sport develop during that time period as well. She said he had to exit that tournament due to an injury and take six weeks off, and coming out believed he obtained a new drive to train.
“He still was loving basketball, he ran cross country, and he was kind of wanting to do it all, but then he got that passion this summer,” she said.
A strong garage door became a favorite spot to practice against away from the court. That is until Brian recently learned about the light which had been broken during those sessions.
A small causality on the path to prominence. It also can be seen as a sign of the pinpoint accuracy he was gaining and put on display Thursday.
Tucker won many long rallies with a cool poise during play. He fired shots on the run with power past his opponent’s quick reactions. In between service points, you can watch Tucker display a bit of swagger when he nonchalantly dribbles the ball between his legs as he walks to the baseline.
Pollock’s teammates got to watch him play as a freshman last year and almost win it all, and could be heard from the stands clamouring about Tucker. “He’s legit.” “He’s going to win state multiple times.” “Dude doesn’t get nervous.”
Pollock himself let out his frustrations several times during the second set of the match. “Give me a volley! He hasn’t given me a single volley in this match.”
“That’s unbelievable,” Pollock said once after believing he had hit a slicing winner onto the far sideline before Tucker lunged and fired his own back across the court. “What have I got to do?”
Not much would help any opponent on Thursday without Tucker committing unforced errors, which were few and not a regular part of his repertoire on the court. Pollock came in ranked in the top-10 of OhioTennisZone.com’s Southwest District list, but one wouldn’t be surprised if Tucker’s turn to appear on that list soon.
Tucker still has work do in the district tournament, with a semifinal match against Mariemont’s Will Stephens up next on Saturday.
Some spaghetti is probably coming in his rest time, maybe video games after practice, but neither are likely to change his demeanor. A freshman with his head on straight and focused on his task, he’s showing he doesn’t sweat the small stuff.
“If I win, I win, and if I lose then I lose,” he said. “Just need to go out there and give it my all.”
Contact Steven Wright at 937-502-4498 and follow on Twitter @Steven_Wright_.