Going face to face with new touring tennis pro Rogers no easy task

Dave Ongie • Apr 29, 2007 at 12:45 PM

KINGSPORT - It's Ben Rogers Night at Ridgefields Country Club, and I'm standing across the net from the guest of honor.

Rogers is just weeks away from beginning his career as Ridgefields' touring professional, but right now, he's getting ready to unleash one of his 120 mph serves in my direction.

This all seemed like a great idea the day before when I talked to Mike Norris, the club's director of tennis, about getting an up-close look at Rogers' serve.

Norris assured me that the clay surface would take about 10 or 15 mph off of the speed.

But now Rogers is standing less than 100 feet away, looking lean, mean and more or less unhittable.

As I twirl the racket in my hand, trying to look like I know what I'm doing, a mischievous grin flashes across Rogers' face and he rips his long-sleeve shirt off over his head. Now he's in short sleeves, bouncing a fluorescent green ball, and I know without a doubt that I'm getting the heat.

What have I gotten myself into?

Rogers looks comfortable on this clay court, and he ought to - his roots at Ridgefields run deep, dating back to his days as a student at Dobyns-Bennett.

He did his work-study at the tennis pro shop, spending his afternoons helping out wherever he was needed before getting in a few hours of practice.

Now, after wrapping up a standout career at D-B and competing for four years at the University of Tennessee, Rogers shakes his head and wonders where the time has gone.

"It's just been a long time since I first started with the co-op here and everything," he says. "This is where I first got that dream to become a pro tennis player."

Thanks to thousands of hours of practice, the support of the Ridgefields community and some hard-earned toughness gained from playing in the Southeastern Conference, that dream is now becoming a reality for Rogers.

"I've been through a lot of ups and downs at UT," he says. "I've played bad, and I've played really well, but it's definitely made me stronger.

"Right now, I feel like I'm mentally tougher than anybody out there, and that's definitely the biggest thing I've improved on."

Rogers said one of the toughest things about college tennis is the pressure of playing an individual sport inside a team structure.

"There's just a little added pressure with a team out there expecting you to win," he says. "I've learned to deal with that, but at first, it was almost impossible for me to play my best tennis."

Now Rogers is ready to make the next step, but he knows carving out a living in the ultra-competitive world of professional tennis won't be easy.

"You start at the lower levels with the small towns, and it's going to be a grind," Rogers says. "But I feel way more prepared for this than I did for college - I feel like my game is built for a pro atmosphere."

While the pro circuit can be a very isolated and lonely place for some young players, Rogers has the comfort of knowing that he's not going on this journey alone. He has the support of everyone at Ridgefields.

"That's what me and Mike talked about a lot," he says, "having this whole community here and kind of bringing them with me."

Right now, everyone at Ridgefields falls silent as Rogers lobs the ball over his head, coils his body and unleashes a monster serve.

I don't even see the ball, but it sounds long to me as it whistles by, so he grabs another out of the hopper as I brace myself.

He uncoils again, and the green blur darts furiously toward the center service line. I stick out my racket, and somehow the ball glances off of it before disappearing into the pine trees behind me.

Now I think I might have a chance, so I motion for Rogers to hit me one more, and he obliges.

I see it this time, but my feet feel like they've grown roots into the clay, and I'm frozen in my tracks as the ball hits the line and skips off toward the fence.

This serve turns out just to be just like the guy who hit it - a winner.

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