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Chris Eubanks realizes his dream as US Open begins

Georgia Tech standout to play in his first Grand Slam

NEW YORK — Less than an hour before a practice session in preparation for his opening US Open match on Monday, Chris Eubanks took a moment to soak in his surroundings. As he watched Roger Federer getting in practice hits on one court, and fellow legend Venus Williams doing the same just yards away, he was a bit overwhelmed.

“I’m just trying to take it all in,” Eubanks said excitedly. “I’m watching it all and trying to take some mental notes.”

Eubanks first picked up a tennis racket when he was 2 years old, and as he progressed into his teenage years he began to dream of playing in a Grand Slam event. Today the dream of the 21-year-old Georgia Tech senior becomes reality as he faces the 72nd-ranked player in the world, Dudi Sela, in the opening round.

“You really have to embrace this moment and this opportunity,” said Eubanks, who is ranked No. 322 in the world and received one of eight wild-card spots in the tournament. “It’s exciting, but you really have to get yourself focused on the tennis. And I really feel that on any given day, I can beat anybody in the world.”

How does a college student — he’s the first active student in the history of Georgia Tech to compete in a major tournament — get that much confidence?

For Eubanks, it stems from being exposed to big-time environments. Even though it’s been two years since he reached the field of his first Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) event (he had lost in two previous qualifiers), Eubanks for years has been the hitting partner of Donald Young, a fellow Atlanta resident who’s ranked 57th in the world. Besides traveling with Young to tournaments across the country, he even accompanied his friend to Wimbledon in 2015.

“Just to get out there on the grass and take in all of that history was incredible,” Eubanks said. “It’s an experience I’ll never forget.”

Eubanks showed signs of being good not long after he first picked up that racket. But he said in his early teens, at 13 and 14, his career began to level off.

Confidence was restored after a growth spurt that saw Eubanks grow to 6-foot-7, adding a level of intimidation. Eubanks helped Atlanta’s Westlake High School finish runner-up in the state tournament in 2011 and 2013.

Outside school, Eubanks spent little time playing on the tennis junior circuit. Instead he traveled with Young, serving as his mentor’s hitting partner in preparation for tournaments. The two began working together after Young’s father took an interest in Eubanks’ career.

The early exposure to a professional game has been invaluable for Eubanks.

“I got a chance to see some of the best balls in the world up close and personal on a daily basis,” Eubanks said. “And I got a chance to see the commitment of professionals all the time. It made everything else easier to deal with.”

Kenny Thorne, the head coach at Georgia Tech, agrees.

“There are a lot of big hitters in the junior circuit who, when they hit a serve, they don’t see it come back,” Thorne said. “He was serving to Donald and was getting those serves sent back to his feet. That has allowed Chris to develop other parts of his game, which has put him into the position that he’s in today.”

Thorne first heard about Eubanks when he was sent video of a Eubanks match by an assistant coach.

“We’re watching a guy hitting a serve, and we’re hearing the sound it makes hitting the fence and we’re like, ‘Oooh,’ ” Thorne said. “It had a little bit different sound than the guys we’re recruiting. Once I saw the video, I said, ‘Let’s make this happen.’ ”

It helped that Eubanks, whose serve has been clocked as high as 135 mph, wanted to stay close to home so his family and friends could see him play. Georgia Tech was the only school Eubanks visited. He began his career by receiving an at-large bid to the NCAA singles championships as a freshman.

He’s been one of the nation’s top collegiate players since then, becoming a two-time All-American and winning the ACC Player of the Year award two straight years.

On Aug. 26, Eubanks was one of 10 recipients of the Arthur Ashe Leadership and Sportsmanship Award, which was presented by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association. The award recognizes scholastic, extracurricular and tennis achievements, and Eubanks is the first recipient of the award to be playing at the US Open at the same time.

“He’s a great kid, and that’s just his character,” Thorne said. “Let’s be honest: A sportsmanship award carries much greater weight if you’re winning. Chris is a winner on and off the court.”

It’s been a hectic week for Eubanks. After arriving in New York on Aug. 22, he’s been trying to balance practice with a lot of the scheduled US Open events, including the leadership award banquet Aug. 26, which followed Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

Now Eubanks, who will take this semester off from Georgia Tech, gets to focus on tennis. His demeanor is unruffled, having won his first two first ATP tour matches over the 125th- and 59th-ranked players in the world on the way to a spot in the quarterfinals of the BB&T Atlanta Open in July.

“I feel like all I’ve been through has put me in a good position,” Eubanks said. “I’m looking forward to playing, and I’ll be ready.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.