Better late than never.
This was the case for CNMI Sports Hall of Famer Jeff Race, who got world ranking points following his title win in the singles play of the Hong Kong ITF Seniors National Tournament 2018 held last month at the Victoria Park Tennis Court.
“I think it’s kind of funny to have my first ITF world ranking at 58, but when I compete these days I’m more focused on just trying to play well and have fun,” said Race, who did not drop a single set in the over 55 age group competition en route to sweeping his five opponents and topping his first ITF Seniors tournament.
The CNMI Junior National Team coach earned 80 world rankings points for his title conquest in Hong Kong and is ranked No. 421 as of Nov. 5. The Hong Kong ITF Seniors was a Grade 3 event and had a competitive field, as most of the participants were frequent figures in the circuit.
“All of the competitors I faced were pretty fit. The skill level varied. If you’ve been playing consistently since you’re a kid, or a teenager, you bring a slightly different skill set to the match, maybe a more complete one. The players I faced in the semis and finals had been playing since they were kids, while the previous three rounds I think had learned tennis as adults,” said Race.
The Micronesian Games multiple-medalist was pitted against Hong Kong’s Chuen-Shu Hung in the finals, while his semis foe was France’s Eric Thorel. Hung was seeded No. 3 in the 26-player field and Race defeated two more ranked players (No. 2 Vladimir Kokorev of Russia and No. 6 David Benwell of Canada), while the CNMI player’s first round opponent was the unseeded Chris Pit of Hong Kong.
Race was unranked in the tournament, but still admitted feeling the pressure of producing good results.
“I was committed to just doing my best and letting the chips fall where they may, which I think for everyone is the best approach for a tournament and the way I coach. Of course, I didn’t want to go all the way over to Hong Kong and lose in the first round so there was a bit of pressure there,” Race said.
“You always still feel a few butterflies before a match which I think is pretty funny at this stage of my career, but I think it just shows that you care about winning,” he added.
As Race moved all the way to the title game, the pressure mounted, especially that he was going up against a very competitive player.
“Hung, my finals opponent, was someone who takes his game seriously and does regular training. The finals was definitely the toughest match. My opponent was the fittest, fastest, and most skilled. I trailed, 0-3, in the first set and had to stay mentally positive as well as adjust my game to be more aggressive to come back and win, 6-4. There were a lot of close games in the second set and I had some chances to win a bit more easily,” the NMSA Coach of the Year awardee said.
“I guess I was feeling some pressure in closing out the match because I missed two forehand approach shots that I normally wouldn’t miss and lost that game to let Hung keep the second set close. Many of the points were long with a lot of running and I was starting to get tired, so I was glad to be able to finish off the match in the second set, 6-3, and not have to go to a third,” Race said.
He added that playing in the Hong Kong event and winning it was a great experience at this time of his career and he hopes to compete anew when opportunities knock.
“Many of the players in the tournament were already retired and enjoy traveling to these events around the world. I’m still working every day with our junior players so I won’t be following them, but I do look forward to joining the occasional tournaments. I still love to compete and it was really fun to play against some guys my own age,” the well-respected coach in the CNMI said.
“I’ve played maybe 200 tournaments in my career. I don’t really have much in the way of goals still to achieve as a player. At 28 or even 38 matches were deadly serious for me. I’ll just see what comes along that fits into my schedule and would be fun to combine a trip with my wife, Heidi, or friends,” Race added.