Shaddy Khalafallah’s route to this year’s state tennis tournament took quite a detour his sophomore year.
But unlike most detours, he’s not expecting it to really cost him any time.
In fact, he believes his year away from Moline High School at the Tucker Tennis Academy in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was time well spent.
The Western Big Six and Class 2A sectional champion hopes to make it past the quarterfinals at this weekend’s state meet based in Arlington Heights that runs on courts throughout the Chicago area.
The unseeded junior (25-5), who opens play today against Cecil Mella of Warren, believes the edge could come from the full year he spent in Tulsa at the academy.
“I would say it improved my mental game really well and my perspective on tennis,” he said. “I’ve been winning a lot more ever since.”
Moline coach Jeff McCracken understood why his star went away for more specific training after making it to state as a freshman. McCracken has seen many improvements — both mentally and physically.
“I think it helped him quite a bit,” McCracken said. “It matured him a lot more. He got a chance to play good competition and work and drill with good competition all the time out there.
“He came back definitely bigger and stronger and more mature and a lot more consistent in everything that he does. It definitely made a big difference.”
Khalafallah’s days were full in Oklahoma, starting at 6 a.m.
His first three hours were spent playing tennis, then it was on to a private school from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. After school for a half hour, he would do either yoga or mental conditioning. Then it was tennis again until 6:30 p.m. while also fitting in some fitness.
“I had a very busy schedule,” understated Khalafallah.
When Khalafallah left Moline after his freshman season, he was 6-foot and 160 pounds. After a normal growth spurt, he’s now 6-3, 183 pounds.
That size is more like that of today’s modern pro players, McCracken said, and it has not hurt him.
“His serve is a lot bigger, more consistent,” said the coach. “His second serve is better, it kicks higher and everything.
“I think he’s a little quicker around the court nowadays. He’s just kind of grown up and grown into his body. For being pretty big, he still moves pretty well.
“His ground strokes are more consistent but yet he still has a lot of power behind him too.”
He’s dominated the Illinois Quad-Cities. Two of his losses are to Class 1A’s top-seeded Victor Spolidorio of Dunlap.
“We had a really close match, a really long match,” Khalafallah said. “I have beaten a lot of top players in the state.”
The last time he went to Chicago as a Maroon, he played with a broken thumb as a freshman and still won several matches.
But he did not have the Tucker Tennis Academy experience.
Originally, he just planned on going for a semester, but Tucker liked his improvement.
“I was making such a dramatic improvement in my game so my coach (Tucker) wanted me to stay more, so I stayed the whole year,” he said.
Khalafallah's goal is not a pro career. Rather, he would like to be a doctor like his father, Ahmed Khalafallah, an internal medicine doctor.
His goal with the academy was mainly to improve his chances at a Division I scholarship.
Now the question is will it pay off with a special weekend in the always tough Illinois state tourney. He’s in the large school division, so it only eliminates a few very good players such as Spolidorio.
McCracken believes this weekend could turn into something special, but he quickly follows with "“It won’t be easy."
Khalafallah’s an excellent student and McCracken calls him “a great teammate.”
“He’s got a lot of close friends on the team. He cares about the rest of the kids on the team," he said.
Shaddy is heading to state along with his lifelong friend and Maroon teammate, Shiv Puri.
He definitely has high hopes for the Maroon duo as they do battle in the singles competition.
“I think Shiv is excited,” he said. “He played a really good tournament at the sectionals, so I think he’s excited and can do well.
“Apparently, he had a good draw as well. It will be exciting to see how we do.”