By Keith Peters
Palo Alto Online Sports
Growing in Palo Alto, Jamin Ball couldn't help but be close to the Stanford University tennis programs. Less than 10 minutes away from campus, Ball was more than a casual observer, especially when it came to the postseason.
"I always came out to the NCAA matches, when Stanford held the first and second rounds," Ball said. "I always wanted to go here . . . I visualized myself playing on these courts."
That dream has become reality for Ball, a freshman on the Stanford men's tennis team. The former Menlo School All-American made his collegiate debut in singles on Tuesday to help the nationally No. 8-ranked Cardinal (5-0) sweep visiting Utah, 7-0, in a nonconference match.
Currently No. 8 on the team's ladder, Ball moved up to No. 6 singles for the Utahmatch when No. 1 and 3 singles players, Bradley Klahn and Ryan Thacher, had the afternoon off to play doubles at the SAP Open.
Klahn and Thacher won their opener at the Courtside Club in Los Gatos, 6-3, 6-7 (6-8), 10-5, to reach the second round.
Ball took advantage of the opportunity and won his first career dual-match in singles, 6-1, 5-7, 10-8, over Utah freshman Garrett LaBarre.
"I've never played No. 6 singles before," said Ball, who played even higher during his freshman year at Menlo. "This was the first time."
Ball breezed in the first set but nerves eventually set in.
"Yeah," he said about being nervous, "just because I have a lot to prove on this team."
Ball got a little tight in the second set and fell behind, 4-1.
"I was pretty tense and nervous," he said, "but when you're losing, there's no reason to be tight anymore."
Ball battled back and held serve to get it to 5-5 before losing the next two points. With the outcome of the team match already decided, Ball headed into a 10-point super-tiebreaker. He made a nice half-volley to go ahead at 9-6 before winning it two points later.
"I played pretty solid in the tiebreaker," Ball said. "I definitely was nervous. It's a lot different playing college tennis."
While Ball played in a number of big events during his high school career -- he helped Menlo win the National High School All-American Boys Invitational Team Tournament last season in addition to Central Coast Section and NorCal titles as the Knights finished 27-0 -- college is different.
"Every match is like a national team coming in," Ball said. "Plus, you have the reputation at Stanford and you have to live up to it."
This season is perhaps the most important for the Stanford men since 2006, the last time the combined NCAA championships were held at the Taube Family Tennis Stadium. The Cardinal men and women will host the nationals again, beginning May 19.
Ball remembers the 2006 event, how crazy it was with all the fans and their cheering. The Georgia men won the NCAA crown last season playing at home in front of their fans. Ball hopes the Cardinal men will have a similar opportunity. They haven't won an NCAA title since 2000.
"We're definitely a contender this year," he said. "We want to be a top-four seed, and just see where it goes. All the guys are working hard and are ready."
Ball would love to be playing and contributing at that time of the season, but understands his role.
"I'm just hoping to work my way up the ladder here," he said. "I'd definitely love to play in the stadium sometime in my career."
To do that, Ball will have to be one of the top three singles players or on one of the three doubles teams. He's certainly getting the competition to improve.
"All these guys, bottom to top, are great," Ball said. "I'm hitting every day with some of the best players in the country. That can only make you better."
Stanford will visit No. 18 Cal on Saturday before hosting Fresno St. on Tuesday at 1:30 p.m. Friday's home match against BYU was postponed to later in the season.
Ball likely will be back in a spectator's role for a while, providing vocal support while waiting his turn to contribute -- like senior Alex Clayton did Tuesday.
After helping win the doubles point, Clayton played No. 1 singles for only the second time since his All-American sophomore season and cruised to a 6-2, 6-3 victory after sophomore Denis Lin had given the Cardinal a 2-0 lead with a 6-0, 6-1 win at No. 2 singles.
Senior Greg Hirschman officially wrapped things up with a 6-0, 6-3 win at No. 3 singles. Sophomore Walker Kehrer won his first career dual match in singles at No. 5, 6-4, 6-1, before Ball walked off the court a winner for the first time while his mother, Angie, and Menlo School assistant coach David Wermuth watched.
"It's a lot of fun," Ball said of the college life. "I'm definitely enjoying it."