A Quality Player -- On and Off the Court

April 30, 2005

by Mitch Stephens
San Francisco Chronicle

The name itself--Kenzo--is rare and means "big, healthy boy" in Japanese.

And the title fits in the case of Lowell senior tennis player Kenzo Hirakawa-Wong, who next week attempts to become the first four-time San Francisco Section (city) singles champion.

Considering records of the tournament date to 1915, this would be a remarkable feat. Then again, say teammates, coaches and foes alike, Hirakawa- Wong is a distinct player and person.

"There's only one Kenzo," Lowell coach Terence Doherty said.

Forget his wicked forehand, superb quickness, 77-6 career high school record or No. 2 ranking among Northern California Tennis Association 18-year-olds.

Never mind that he's signed a letter of intent to Santa Clara University.

What really sets Hirakawa-Wong apart is his big, healthy personality. It's not large as in loud or entertaining, but rather he engages with all-comers, bridging gaps and widening camaraderie, not only among teammates but opponents.

In that respect, he's seen as a genuine ambassador for his sport--not common among young, elite players of this highly competitive and individual game.

"I don't ever see my opponent as my enemy," said Hirakawa-Wong, who turns 18 on Sunday. "Usually, we become friends or we exchange (phone) numbers. You never know what you can learn from another player. Besides, if you ever need to hit with someone before a tournament it's always good to have friends."

Lowell's No. 2 player, Ilya Gendelman, has hit with Hirakawa-Wong more than he can recall. A fine player in his own right--he'll play next season at UC Santa Cruz--Gendelman has largely lived in his teammate's shadow, yet shows no signs of animosity or envy.

"Kenzo is just such a nice guy--he's someone we all look up to," Gendelman said. "He has such good qualities. He's social and outgoing but humble and not hard-headed."

A good upbringing and athletic genes--his sister Michi was a three-sport star at Lowell and now runs track and cross country at the University of Arizona--has obviously aided Hirakawa-Wong, who ran the mile in five minutes, five seconds as an eighth grader.

He's also been inspired by his idol, Swiss star Roger Federer, the top-ranked player in the world.

"He's not just a cut above everyone else, but I really admire how he carries himself," Hirakawa-Wong said. "No matter what the situation, he doesn't change. You can never tell if he's winning or losing. He never hangs his head or gets too excited after a good shot."

Doherty said Hirakawa-Wong mimics Federer masterfully.

"He's so composed," Doherty said. "He's always so calm and shows great sportsmanship. He's a favorite of all others, a great role model."

Said Hirakawa-Wong: "You never want to give your opponent anything to feed off."

He figures to be a little nervous next week when the Section tourney begins at Golden Gate Park.

Not only is Gendelman, who has lost three straight years in the semifinals, a threat, but so is Burton sophomore auric Lao, the No. 2 seed who actually won a set off the three-time champion during the regular season, losing 6-4, 5-7, 6-0.

More so than any foe, Hirakawa-Wong is battling history and he knows it.

"Everyone has been telling me about how I can be the first four-time champion," he said. "I'm trying to block it completely out. It's totally one match at a time."

Besides, Hirakawa-Wong is accustomed to the pressure. He's been on top so long that he draws attention wherever he plays in San Francisco.

Once he reveals his name "Kenzo," people tend to gather and gawk.

"Really, I like it (pressure), it helps keep me motivated," Hirakawa-Wong said. "When we have home matches I tell my friends to tell their friends to draw the biggest crowds possible."

By late next week, he may very well be in a league of his own.