Two years ago, doctors told Leo Young that he would never be able to play tennis competitively again. They must not have been very convincing, because the 51-year-old Ashland Tennis & Fitness Club general manager is back on the court, taking on men half his age and proving that hard work, a good surgeon and a relentless personal trainer sometimes is enough to overcome the odds.
Facing a 3-1 deficit in the second set after losing the first, Young rallied to beat doubles partner Cesar Uauy and claim his first Big Al's Tennis Tournament men's open singles title, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, Sunday at Hunter Park.
Playing on a surgically repaired left foot that endured an experimental operation only 18 months ago, Young won nine of 10 games during a key stretch that began in the second set and ended with him seizing a 4-0 lead in the third. Uauy, 23, a former Lewis-Clark State College player and current Southern Oregon University graduate student, fought through his own injury woes to get within 4-2 and 5-3 in the third set, but couldn't overcome a costly service break in the eighth game and was forced to settle for second place.
"It's so funny, no matter how much we play each other we go back and forth," said Young, adding that he plays Uauy at the club once or twice a week. "There's no rhyme or reason, we're dead even pretty much. He's a great competitor. I didn't think I was at my best and I thought after that first set he might pull ahead, but I got a lucky couple shots and it turned the other way. Momentum."
A consistent, if not overpowering all-court player, Young showed off a little flash to start his turnaround. Down a break at 3-1 and staring 4-1 in the face after Uauy went up 40-15, Young got to deuce, fought off a third game point with a spectacular forehand passing shot then secured his third service break of the match when a Uauy forehand sailed long.
Later, Young pulled out another deuce game with a key ace followed by an overhead smash to hold serve and tie the second set at 4-4. Moments later, Young broke Uauy when his backhand at 30-40 hit the net. Young then held serve at love to clinch the second set.
Momentum on his side, Young, who consistently charged the net behind his serve, broke Uauy at love to open the third set and earned another break two games later to extend his lead to 3-0.
"I could see that (Uauy) was having a little trouble with his forehand, so I was trying to put pressure on him by moving forward and making him hit it through me," Young said.
Plagued by calf tightness and shin splints, Uauy slowed down considerably as the third set wore on. Afterward, he blamed his lack of court time and the heat — the temperature in Ashland reached 100 degrees on Sunday — but also credited Young with seizing the opportunity.
"All credit to Leo," Uauy said. "He made me run a lot and he plays smart. He started moving me even more and sometimes I stand weak, I can't push off of my leg and that's when he takes the advantage and finishes the points."
Uauy tried to fight through the pain late and appeared to reclaim the momentum, however briefly. He held serve for the first time in a long time to erase the goose egg and make it 4-1, then took advantage of three unforced errors by Young to earn his first break since early in the second set and cut the deficit to 4-2.
Young bounced back, though. Facing Uauy's serve, Young unleashed a blistering forehand winner to make it 15-15, then took advantage of a double fault and two unforced errors to seize a 5-2 cushion.
Uauy quickly broke Young to keep the match going, but again couldn't hold his own serve with the championship on the line. At 30-30, Uauy's backhand slice sailed long to give Young his first match point. Young didn't waste it, keeping the ball in the court on the next point long enough to see Uauy hook another wild backhand.
After the win, Young credited Ashland Tennis & Fitness Club personal trainer Steven Dahn with providing the push Young needed to complete his comeback from multiple surgeries — Young, a lefty, also went under the knife about three years ago to repair his ailing left shoulder.
"(Dahn) said, 'Leo, get out there and get in gear,'" Young said. "He truly has done amazing things for me. He gave me a second lease on life."
Young's latest Big Al's championship — he's not sure how many doubles titles he's won, but estimated there are 10 more pieces of Big Al's pottery at his home — continues what has so far been an exceptional comeback. Competing in the International Tennis Federation senior grand slams division, Young won the Oregon Senior Men's Indoor championship in March and is currently ranked seventh in the nation. Next year, he plans to push his body even harder and attempt to play in every Grand Slam senior event in the world.
Whether or not he can pull that off, Young sounds like somebody who will enjoy the ride.
"It's been a rough five years," he said, "so truthfully, I'm just glad to be out on the court having a great time. I've been very fortunate and I'm just glad to be here."
Complete results were not available as of press time.