Siblings play off rivalry to propel them in to state tennis tourney

June 1, 2010

By Christopher Huber

Brother and sister Tyler and Alisa VanGrunsven, of Skyline High School, fed off their sibling rivalry to propel them both to the 2010 4A state tennis tournament. Photo by Christopher Huber

Alisa VanGrunsven hung a motivational poster in her room in summer 2009 to get herself thinking about a run at the state tennis singles tournament. She made it herself, complete with a Nike swoosh drawn on it. “State 2010 — You Can Do It,” the poster reads.

The budding Skyline High School singles player said she had struggled with consistency as of late and relied on the daily reminder during her sophomore season. She needed confidence going into the KingCo playoffs, she said.

“I wanted to quit a few times,” she said.

But rather than quitting, she pressed on, worked on her mental game, and in the KingCo 4A crossover match, overcame Skyview’s Brittany Ellingsen in dramatic fashion. VanGrunsven won the 2-hour, 45-minute match, 7-5, 4-6, 6-3, to make the cut for state.

“She played a very convincing match,” Skyline coach Bettina Gehle said. “She was strong with her mental game and also profited from her aggressive strokes.”

It was Alisa’s first state tournament birth. But what makes this year even more special for her and Skyline tennis fans is she joined her brother, senior Tyler VanGrunsven. Tyler, who played in the state 4A singles tournament this year, also participated in the 2009 state doubles tournament with Skyline graduate Ryan Clark. Tyler qualified for state after the boys’ fall season.

In the first round, both Tyler and Alisa faced two of the toughest and most experienced opponents in the state in Kentwood’s Max Manthou and Central Valley’s Leslie Ho, respectively. Tyler lost 7-5, 6-2 and Alisa fell in three sets 5-7, 6-3, 6-3.

Tyler and Alisa each lasted two rounds in the 2010 4A state tournament in Eastern Washington May 28 and 29. Tyler faced Manthou, who was undefeated in four years of high school and eventually went on to win state for the fourth year in a row. Tyler then lost 6-4, 1-6, 7-6 to Scott McConnell, of Shorewood.

“It was disappointing for Tyler not to win this match, but at the end, he can be very proud to be at state as a single player,” said Gehle. “The competition is very high.”

Alisa was also eliminated after two rounds. She put up a fight in the first two sets but lost steam in the third against Ho, Gehle said.

In the second round, Alisa lost 6-4, 6-3 to Bellarmine Prep’s Meesha Sundarum.

“Alisa is young and will learn from this experience,” Gehle said. “I am very confident that she will do much better in her next state experience.”

Tyler rose quickly through the ranks of Skyline’s varsity team his freshman and sophomore years. When phenom Nick Kamisar left the team, Tyler jumped from the No. 3 singles player to No. 1. He had to step up as a team leader, and he took to the role quickly, Gehle said.

He is known for his powerful serve and varying trick shots, according to Gehle and Clark.

“Tyler, he’s a power player,” said Clark, who graduated and now attends Western Washington University. “One of the best serves I’ve ever seen or played with.”

When it comes to winning, it’s all about exploiting your opponent’s weakness, in addition to hard and fast serves, Tyler said. He uses a lot of misdirection — hitting inside instead of outside, using the whole court. He tricks them with body language, too.

“I like to disguise my shots,” he said. “I like to make ’em run.”

He might also attribute his success to always having a level head on the court. His favorite shot is a kick serve to the outside back of the court, he said.

“He has lot of confidence in his game,” Clark said. “He’s a very emotional guy when he plays and I think that helps him out. He likes to go for shots sometimes. Always goes all out. Always hustling.”

Playing since age 13

Alisa began playing tournaments at age 13. She has played tennis with her mother much of her life. They currently play every day for a couple of hours, Alisa said.

“We’ve been playing a long time,” she said.

Unlike her brother, she’s hard on herself during matches. Alisa said mentality is everything in tennis. As she develops her game, she continues to work on the mental aspect, she said. Often, poor mentality can be more of a weakness in a match than poor shot execution.

“Anyone can build skill, but it’s hard to build mentality,” she said.

Alisa prefers to get her opponents with an angled cross-court forehand, she said.

Although boys and girls tennis differs greatly, the siblings still play together or give each other tips here and there.

“I give her pointers a lot,” Tyler said.

Alisa realized she wanted to keep with tennis during the summer she put up that motivational poster. She was playing off-season tournaments and felt better about her game than in years past.

“I just started to win,” she said.

It hit her why she loves the game so much. She could always improve her game and it would always be an outlet for her.

“Tennis is really something I could stick to and that would never let me down,” she said.

The siblings both like tennis for its apparent simplicity that, once one truly commits, forces them to develop on-the-fly strategy and skill through diligent conditioning and consistent practice.

“Once you start to play it, it takes a lot of endurance,” Tyler said. “It’s a challenge every match you play.”

Tennis is different because it’s a fiercely individual sport, the siblings said, adding it can be fun at a basic level or at a competitive level.

Alisa said she hopes to continue her state tournament experience throughout high school and is open to playing competitively in college.

“Tennis is a lifelong sport,” she said. “The most important part is to enjoy it.”

Tyler, who is headed to Western Washington University in the fall, said he knows he’ll continue to play, competitively or not.

“You can be 60 and still play tennis,” he said.

Christopher Huber: 392-6434, ext. 242, or Comment at

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