By Dan Gilles
Chris Richardson had never in his life picked up a tennis racquet prior to his freshman year at Lakewood.
After playing golf in the fall and hockey in the winter, Richardson’s mother encouraged him to give tennis a try, saying it would be fun.
Four years later, Richardson’s glad he took his mother’s advice.
While being a perennial All-Star in hockey and doing well on the golf course, Richardson has also found himself a niche on the tennis courts, becoming a two-time conference champion and a four-time all-conference selection in boys tennis.
“It turned out I had a knack for (tennis),” said Richardson, who went 15-7 as Lakewood’s first singles player this year, leading them to an outright conference title in the Rangers’ first year in the West Shore Conference. “I was pretty fortunate that I caught on pretty fast, and I’ve been playing varsity ever since.”
Richardson was an All-Northeast Ohio Conference selection as a freshman, despite not joining the varsity until a few weeks into the season. As a sophomore and junior, he was the third singles NOC champion before taking third in the WSC this season at first singles.
“It’s my last sport in my last year, and to end with a conference championship is pretty special,” Richardson said. “I just enjoyed playing with everyone over the last few years.”
Lakewood head coach Chris Johnson recalled Richardson’s freshman year.
“He came to us very raw and very unproven, and didn’t really know too much about the game of tennis,” he said. “But he just picked it up extremely fast. I tell this story to the guys all the time. When we’re indoors conditioning and it’s freezing out, we play dodge ball as a team-building exercise at the end of practice.
“Just watching him play dodge ball, the way he competed and the way he moved out there, I knew right then that he would be a very valuable part of our program for the next four years. It took him about half a year to break through the starting lineup, but once he did, there was no looking back.”
The past three years at the Division I Northeast Sectional Boys Tennis Tournament at Oberlin College, Richardson played singles. This season, Johnson decided to pair Richardson up with second singles player and fellow senior Chris Brinich to try to make a district run at doubles.
Unfortunately, the two Chrises came up one match short of a district berth last Tuesday. After opening up with a 6-0, 6-0 win over Olmsted Falls’ Julie Wu-Chris Kuczynski and a 6-3, 6-2 win over St. Edward’s Brendan Wasilko-Jack Ryan, they fell to the third-seeded team of St. Ignatius’ Nick Siciliano-Bob Kirchner, 6-3, 6-1, in the quarterfinals.
“My freshman year, I got to the third round; my sophomore year, I got to quarterfinals; and my junior year, I made it back to the quarterfinals,” Richardson said. “I’ve come close to districts, and while it would have been nice to make it as a senior, I think we played very well.
“It’s a different game, doubles. Usually at singles, you can just kind of wait people out. Doubles is more faster. You’ve just got to be ready at each serve. You’ve got to work on angling your shots better, finishing the point.”
Richardson was hoping he and Brinich would get seeded. While he said not getting the seed would give them a “chip on their shoulder,” he understood.
“We had never played doubles before, so I could see why they didn’t,” he said. “It would have been nice to prove them wrong, though.”
Johnson said Richardson’s willingness to accept the doubles assignment and the ability he’d shown pairing up with Brinich says a lot about his competitiveness.
“He brings out the best in his playing partners in doubles,” he said. “He sets the tone for everybody, and everybody knows, as far as effortwise, how they need to act. I think that spreads throughout the team, and I think that’s been the case the last four years.
“Our team has won our league three out of the four years Chris has been here. A lot of that is, obviously, due to him.”
Richardson was 3-3 against WSC foes at first singles, while Brinich was 20-3, 6-0 during the WSC regular season. Third singles player Dan Mezin was also 6-0 in the WSC and won the WSC tournament title, going 14-7 this season.
While Richardson excelled at all three sports, he figures his days of playing competitively are over.
“I’ll be going to Ohio State, so it would be tough to play any of those sports at their level,” he said. “Maybe I might play at the club level. It depends.
“Right now, I’m exploratory (with the studies). But I could see myself majoring in business or accounting.”
Johnson will miss having Richardson next year.
“He’s definitely one of the best competitors I’ve ever coached,” he said. “He doesn’t necessarily have the greatest tennis background skills, but he makes up for it in effort and intensity out there on the court.
“I think he’s one of the most successful three-sport athletes in Lakewood history. He was a top golfer, a hockey all-star and first singles on the conference champion tennis team. It’s hard enough to be successful at one of these sports, let alone all three.”