FORT MILL TOWNSHIP — When Davis Phillips and Suzette Smit walked into the Belton Tennis Center at the start of the Memorial Day weekend, it would have been a good bet that one would walk out a champion.
The smart money would have been on Davis.
Although both of the 10-year-olds from Fort Mill are gifted juniors players, it was Davis who was ranked No. 1 heading into the Chick-fil-A Palmetto Championships. Suzette entered the premier tournament unseeded – and it’s unlikely that will happen again next year.
Both Davis and Suzette captured titles on the Belton courts and advance to the June 15-19 Southern Junior Closed Championships in Cary, N.C. Davis survived a tough challenge by Robbie Young of Greenville, 4-1, 5-3 in the Palmetto finals while Suzette stunned Robbie’s twin sister, Sophie Young, 4-0, 4-1.
They are the first juniors tennis players from Fort Mill to win the event, which began in 1957 and added the 10-year-old division in 1991, tournament director Rex Maynard said.
The Young twins are ranked No. 2 (Robbie) and No. 3 in the state.
Suzette “has not been playing many tournaments, and that’s why she was not seeded in this tournament,” Suzette’s mom, Annette Smit, said. “So she was a surprise for the other player. She played beautifully.”
The Smits relocated to the U.S. from South Africa about a year ago. The family has been living in the Palmetto Place Apartments complex while building a home in nearby Tega Cay. Suzette attends Gold Hill Elementary School.
Annette Smit recalls that Suzette, a student at Gold Hill Elementary School, seemed fascinated by tennis at an early age while watching her mom play.
“She played with a little plastic tennis racket before she could even walk,” Smit said. She said Suzette started working with a tennis coach at age 7.
“It’s pretty fun,” Suzette said. “It’s a fun sports because it’s like a mix of athletics and hand-eye coordination.”
Asked her favorite shot, Suzette says it’s her serve.
“I think it’s pretty fast,” she said. “My coach says I have a good serve.”
It’s good enough to sometimes beat much older and more experienced players, Suzette said, although she readily admits that she can be schooled by the big girls, too.
“It’s fun to compete against partners, playing in the clinics and at the tennis center in Rock Hill,” she said.
Suzette said the Williams sisters – Serena and Venus – are her tennis role models.
“They are really good players,” she said.
Davis, who is finishing up the fourth grade at Springfield Elementary, has been playing tennis since he was 4 1/2, his parents said. At age 6, Davis, who trains in clinics at Charlotte Tennis Academy, was participating in team tennis and playing in competitive matches. He’s also worked with Billy McKinney, who coached Nation Ford High School to two region titles and an Upper State title the past two seasons and runs Absolute Tennis in Fort Mill; Teddi Doncheva of the Rock Hill Tennis Center; and Charlotte Tennis Academy’s Chris Hoshour.
Although tennis is his “main sport and I play year-round,” Davis likes other sports as well.
“I do enjoy playing soccer, basketball, football and street hockey with my friends,” he said.
His favorite professional player is Rafael Nadal, “because his footwork is amazing and he is fun to watch.”
Two traits Davis is showing at such a young age are confidence and a healthy respect for quality opponents. He expected to win the Palmetto Championship but counted on a tough finals match.
“I was not surprised, because last year I came in second and I had been practicing a lot this past year,” Davis said. “I was a little worried about playing my doubles partner, Robbie Young, because he is a good player and we go back and forth beating each other. However, going into the tournament I had a good feeling I could win.”
Learning to accept losses with dignity and being a gracious winner are as important as learning footwork and proper strokes, said Maynard, who’s been the tournament’s director since 1980.
“We have these pins made that say ‘great sports make a sport great,’ and when we see a great example of players being good sports, we wanted to reward them by giving them a pin,” he said. “Well, needless to say, we ran out of those pins pretty quickly. It’s especially good to see the young ones doing that.”
As tournament champions, Suzette and Davis will have their names included in next year’s event guide and in every guide published after that, Maynard said.