COLUMBIA — Rock Bridge senior Ford Zitsch makes playing tennis look simple at practice. With a relaxed expression on his face, Zitsch effortlessly attacks the ball and slams anything in his path back at his opponent, then laughs with his friends between plays.
When he plays matches against other No. 1 players, Zitsch continues nonchalantly to make difficult moves look uncomplicated.
What: Rock Bridge v. Hickman (2-0) boys tennis
When: 4 p.m. Thursday
Where: Cosmo-Bethel Park in Columbia
“He’s just really good,” Rock Bridge coach Ben Loeb said. “Against some opponents, it’s just not going to be close. What he can do is unusual.”
In Rock Bridge’s first completed match of the season on Tuesday against Jefferson City, Zitsch won every game and made quick work of his opponent. In a best of three sets, Zitsch won 6-0 and 6-0.
It’s the little things that make Zitsch stand out. To the frustration of his opponent on Tuesday, Zitsch fired a serve that didn’t just beat his opponent, but it also made him lose his footing and nearly fall to the ground.
For a lot of high school tennis players, this would be a highlight. For Zitsch, in his fourth year as Rock Bridge’s No. 1 singles player, it is the norm.
“It is something we expected,” Loeb said of Zitsch’s lopsided win.
After leading the Bruins to two state championships in a row, Zitsch is looking for a third straight.
“Same expectations as last year, just maybe I can do them a little bit better,” Zitsch said.
But there is something that has eluded Zitsch over his three years — something that would complete his impressive resume.
Three times Zitsch has been in contention to win the individual state title, and three times he left the state tournament without it.
As a freshman, Zitsch beat the now two-time individual champion Paul Nahon from Glendale High School in the regular season but then lost to him at state, finishing seventh.
His sophomore year, Zitsch lost to defending champion Matt Kuelker (6-4, 6-3) in the semifinals and finished in third place.
Last year, Zitsch beat Nahon again in the regular season, but when Zitsch finally got his chance in the championship, he lost to Nahon again.
Nahon and Kuelker have both since graduated, and Zitsch is hoping to take advantage and finally get his individual title.
“Last year I wanted to win state as a team and state as an individual. Got half of that goal last year. So hopefully I can do two parts this year, team and the individual state title.”
Loeb said it is Zitch's athleticism, strong work ethic, great rhythm and a strong competitive desire that separate him from the rest of the pack.
“He likes to be successful, and he’s willing to pay the price in time and effort and commitment to the sport to be successful," Loeb said.
Zitsch said his strength is in the power in his serve and forehand. But even with his team state titles and all his wins, there is something in his game that Zitsch is always trying to improve on.
"I have all the physical attributes to be a good tennis player," Zitsch said. "But sometimes I fall short on these huge tournaments I come to and the only thing that it boils down to is my mental (game), is preparing right or what not. So definitely the mental aspect can sometimes be a weakness of mine.”
To improve that part of his game, Zitsch tries to remember what he read in the book "Winning Ugly." The author, Brad Gilbert, was once ranked among the top five tennis players in the world.
“One of his quotes in the book was ‘Who’s doing what to who?’” Zitsch said. For Zitsch, that means figuring out and exploiting what's working for him during the match as well as defusing whatever is working for his opponent to take control of the match. “So you’re always thinking about what’s going on, what you need to do.”
The goals and the No. 1 ranking stay the same for Zitsch.
Loeb is hoping Zitsch can find other ways to help the team.
“I need for him to set a good example for others and be very supportive and encouraging in doubles,” Loeb said. “Because the other team’s bound to pick on his partner. He needs to be there at times in ways he may not have had to in the past, given we’ve graduated some key guys.
“We just have to overcome that if we’re going to pull off a three-peat.”
Zitsch has recognized his new responsibilities.
“Like this guy right here Rohit,” Zitsch said pointing to his teammate. “He’s a freshman. Definitely has some learning to do. So I kind of tell him what’s up when he’s not doing things right and be a leader that way. But leading by example is probably even more important than being a vocal leader.”
Zitsch’s success has been recognized at the collegiate level. After considering schools such as Illinois State, Texas Christian and Tulsa, Zitsch committed to play tennis at Nebraska.
“I got a pretty decent scholarship for a freshman,” Zitsch said. “It was a pretty good deal. Definitely felt like I needed to take it over the other choices I had.”
These are all reasons why Loeb calls Zitsch, without question, the best tennis player ever to come out of Columbia.