By Rick Eymer
Palo Alto Online Sports
Alex Clayton's professional tennis career will likely last about a month. He's scheduled to join the American work force in July and figures there may not be enough time to stay sharp.
Clayton, one of three seniors (with Greg Hirshman and Ted Kelly) on Stanford's men's tennis team, leaves behind a memorable legacy of success and triumph over adversity. The Cardinal (21-6) saw its season end with a 4-3 loss to top-seeded and unbeaten Virginia in the quarterfinals of the NCAA team tournament last Sunday.
For the first time in his tennis life, Clayton had to fight back the tears.
"It's hard being done," Clayton said. "It's a weird feeling. I'll wake up tomorrow and won't be back here playing with the team again."
Stanford coach John Whitlinger had to fight back tears himself when speaking about Clayton and his influence on the program.
"When he first got here the program was somewhat in a shambles," Whitlinger said. "He leaves it in better shape and I can't thank him enough for his leadership and his contribution."
As a freshman, Clayton helped lead Stanford into the postseason after failing to reach the NCAA tournament the previous year. He was ranked as high as No. 2 in the country, named the ITA National Rookie of the Year, the Pac-10 Player of the Year and Pac-10 Freshman of the Year.
Numerous injuries and setbacks kept Clayton from returning to full strength but that was never an excuse for the man Whitlinger says "is like a son."
Clayton, who won a pair of NCAA matches before losing the clinching point against the Cavaliers, departs with a 109-44 career singles record and the admiration of his coaches and players.
Hirshman, injured for the NCAA tournament, and Kelly combined for a 78-55 career mark.
"I feel like I played as well as I have ever played," Clayton said. "It was just so close and I just couldn't get over the line."
Clayton plans to play in a handful of professional tournaments in June before beginning a job with Goldman-Sachs in San Francisco.
Whitlinger is glad he'll be close to "home."
"It's been a crazy ride," Clayton said. "I almost didn't come to Stanford. I thought about playing professionally. But this has been the most amazing experience of my life. Coach and the team have become like family. Countless people have made it happen and given me lifelong memories."
Clayton reached the semifinals of the NCAA tournament as a freshman and the quarterfinals as a sophomore, earning All-American honors both years. He was a second team all-Pac-10 honoree as a junior.
"We were OK when I was a freshman but we needed help at the top of the singles and that's where Bradley (Klahn) and Ryan (Thacher) made a huge difference," Clayton said. "To get this far, and to take the No. 1 team to the limit is the best experience I've had in tennis."
Whitlinger first saw Clayton as a singles finalist at the USTA Nationals in Kalamazoo, Mich., as a 16-year-old. He was the nation's second-ranked player in the age group and the two of them formed a bond that will continue far past graduation.
"Coaching the team is part of it but it's also about helping them prepare for later in the life," Whitlinger said. "This guy will be a success. Alex has a great base from which to draw. He's part of the Stanford family. He's part of the legacy. We had a lot of ex-players come to this event. It was great to see them all. Alex will be in San Francisco and will always be welcomed back."
Stanford reached the quarterfinals for the first time in five years, when the Cardinal last hosted the NCAA championships. Stanford lost to Baylor, 4-3, in a match that had to be moved indoors in San Francisco to be completed.
The Cardinal last won a national title in 2000 and reached one semifinal since, in 2003.
Klahn, Thacher, Matt Kandath and Denis Lin are eligible to return for Stanford, a solid foundation for another run at a possible title. Walker Kehrer and Menlo School grad Jamin Ball also saw significant action on the year.
Thanks to players like Clayton, the Stanford men's program is healthy and headed in the right direction.
Blue chip recruit Robert Stineman, a senior at New Trier High School in Illinois, has made a verbal commitment to Stanford. Stineman has been ranked as one of the top two recruits in the nation. He will be joined by Ireland's John Morrissey.