When Brian Boland, head coach of the top-ranked University of Virginia men's tennis team, maps out his recruiting strategy, his first priority isn't combing the grounds of the IMG Bollettieri Tennis Academy or any other Sun Belt tennis factory.
Boland's team, which currently is 29-0 and hasn't lost an Atlantic Coast Conference match in more than five years, has three starters from Fairfax County. And one of the top recruits in the country, Mitchell Frank, a senior at Annandale High School, is on the way next year.
With little fanfare, Fairfax County is emerging as one of the nation's most competitive tennis hotbeds, with scores of talented youngsters competing at clubs such as the Four Seasons Tennis Club, the Fairfax Racquet Club and the Burke Tennis & Racquet Club.
"Northern Virginia has been very good to me," Boland said in an interview prior to his team winning its fifth consecutive ACC championship in late April. "I said from day one, my No. 1 goal was to make sure we recruited the young men from our backyard first and then we'd move beyond those borders after that."
UVA's trio of starters from Fairfax County includes senior Michael Shabaz, a Fairfax native who is the fourth-ranked college player in the country; junior Drew Courtney, a former Robinson Secondary School standout who won the 2010 NCAA doubles title with Shabaz and has 99 career NCAA singles wins; and freshman Justin Shane, a Falls Church native who cracked the team's starting lineup this spring year and has posted a 28-8 record in his first season with the team. UVA's women's team, currently ranked 12th in the nation, also is led by a former Robinson standout, junior Lindsey Hardenbergh, who is ranked 29th in the NCAA singles rankings.
Shabaz will turn pro this summer after receiving a degree in anthropology, but he's already gotten more than a taste of the pro game, despite his collegiate status. He was part of the U.S. Davis Cup team that beat Chile, 4-1, in March. Although he didn't see match action, he had the opportunity to practice with Andy Roddick, John Isner and doubles partners Bob and Mike Bryan on courts in Santiago.
"Getting to play and hang out with those guys was a great experience," Shabaz said. "It was a hostile environment, obviously, being Davis Cup, and playing for more than just yourself adds pressure on the guys, but it's something I'll learn from and I hope to get the opportunity to represent the country in Davis Cup someday."
It wasn't Shabaz's first encounter with the Bryans, the world's top doubles team.
At last year's Legg Mason Tennis Classic, Shabaz and Courtney took on the identical twins in a night match on the stadium court, and took the iconic duo to the brink, succumbing 7-6, 6-4 in a tightly contested match. Both players have an enormous amount of respect for the Bryans, but they weren't intimidated by them either.
"I think they knew we won the NCAA doubles, which they did as well," Courtney said. "Shabaz and I brought a pretty imposing game style, and we were serving and returning really well, so I think that helped them figure out who we were as well."
When Shabaz turns pro this summer, he'll join another Fairfax County native who already has cracked the top 100 doubles rankings. Treat Huey was a standout at St. Stephen's & St. Agnes in Alexandria, before excelling at UVA and joining the pro tour in 2008.
In a sport where teenage champions were once common, tennis players now tend to reach their peak later, and the most promising players in the country, who once eschewed college tennis, now are embracing it, as a means to prepare for a career in tennis and beyond.
UVA's tennis standouts from Fairfax County are part of that movement of elite players honing their games at the NCAA level, and their success is proof positive that Northern Virginia is one of the most competitive tennis breeding grounds in the country.
"I think we have some of the best tennis coaches in the country, right in Fairfax," said Justin Shane, whose brother Ryan, a junior at J.E.B. Stuart High School in Falls Church, is listed as a four-star recruit by the sport's preeminent recruiting website, TennisRecruiting.net. "I never felt the need to move to Florida to attend Bollettieri or the other academies. My dad wanted me to go to a normal public school, and the decision was one of the best I've made."
The ranks of talented tennis players in the county runs deep. According to TennisRecruiting.net, Mitchell Frank is the third-ranked high school senior in the country.
Frank, a hard-serving righthander, had a scintillating performance last week at a USTA Futures Circuit Event in Vero Beach, Fla.
On his way to the final of a tournament that included touring professionals, Frank defeated two former collegiate All-Americans in the main draw. In the round of 32, he topped former Arkansas standout Blake Strode, a 2009 NCAA singles semifinalist, 6-2, 6-1. The next day he topped former Oklahoma All-American Andrei Daescu 6-3, 6-7, 4-0 ret. In the quarterfinals he scored a 3-6, 6-0, 6-3 win over No. 2 seed Matteo Marrai of Italy, the world's No. 418 ranked player. He topped Gabriel Moraru of Romania 1-6, 6-4, 6-1 in the semifinals before falling to fourth-seeded Daniel Garza of Mexico, the world's No. 444 player, in the final, 7-6, 1-6, 6-1.
Fairfax County's talent train doesn't stop with Frank and Shane.
Jason Luu, a senior at Fairfax High School and Quoc-Daniel Nguyen, a senior at Marshall, will play at Cornell next year. On the girl's side Julie Vrabel, a junior at Thomas Jefferson, is rated as a five-star recruit and is being courted by some of the country's leading tennis programs.
The high level of competition in the area breeds better players, more capable of competing on the national level, but the bad news is that if you want your child to get a tennis scholarship to a powerhouse like UVA, they'll have to fight it out with an ever-increasing list of area prodigies.