DEERFIELD — Niko Wasilewicz wanted to take his tennis game to a different level, and a trip to a different continent helped the Deerfield sophomore do just that.
Last spring, a back injury limited the number of matches Wasilewicz played for the Warriors. When he was on the court, he showed enough talent to be slotted at No. 1 singles on the freshman/sophomore team. At the end of the season, he had a conversation with Deerfield coach Josh Leighton about the direction of his high school career.
“I told him, ‘Your serve is coming along, your forehand’s great, your backhand’s good,’” Leighton said. “But I said, ‘You need to be a better volleyer. You have to be able to volley.’”
Standing 6-foot-4 with soft hands, Wasilewicz possessed natural height and dexterity. All he needed was practice.
Over the summer, Wasilewicz set out to do just that. In July, he traveled to Poznan, Poland, with his 13-year-old brother, Jake, his mother, Beata, and his father, Mac. The main reason for the trip was to visit relatives, but with his back feeling better, Wasilewicz wanted to hit balls.
“I knew I had to improve my volleying, my footwork at the net. That’s what the summer was devoted to,” Wasilewicz said.
He drilled every weekday at a tennis club near where his family was staying. Using a private coach or hitting partner, Wasilewicz worked on his volleys. When he returned to the United States, he resumed drilling at the Glenbrook Racquet Club with coach Sidney Mella, director of the club’s high school program.
With his game more refined and his volleying more consistent, Wasilewicz spent most of the fall and winter competing in — and winning — state tournaments. In March, Wasilewicz entered a USTA Midwest Level 3 Tournament in Appleton, Wis., as a singles player.
“I came in as an underdog. Before, I would have thought, ‘I’ll be out in the first round and play in the back draw,’” Wasilewicz said.
But Wasilewicz won the tournament, beating the Nos. 3 and 4 seeds.
“That was significant. After that, I saw the changes in my game,” Wasilewicz said.
A round of 16 finish at the USTA Midwest Level 4 West Championships in Indiana in March preceded the high school season. Leighton paired him with another sophomore, Chris Casati, at No. 1 doubles.
The Pitchford Invitational, hosted by Hersey on Friday and Saturday, is widely considered a state preview. Wasilewicz and Casati won four of their five matches. Their only loss was in straight sets to Stevenson’s powerhouse team of junior Colin Harvey and senior Andrew Komarov, third-place finishers at last year’s state tournament.
Deerfield hosts its own invitational this Friday and Saturday, and Stevenson will be a participant. Wasilewicz said he’s hoping for another crack at Harvey and Komarov.
If he gets it, he’ll be at the net, smacking volleys with more confidence than ever.
“Whenever [an opponent] pulls me in, I feel comfortable going to the net,” Wasilewicz said.