High School Sports

These two young tennis stars took different paths, but both have found success

Natalie Block of American Heritage and Akasha Urhobo of Pine Crest are two young tennis stars … with very different career paths.

Block, a 15-year-old freshman, won two state titles last season as an eighth-grader — in singles and as Katelyn Gramanzini’s doubles partner.

As a kid, Block learned to play tennis in her community, at Hawks Landing in Plantation. But she was also influenced by her mother, Debra Block, who played college tennis in the Ivy League at Columbia.

And that’s the route Natalie Block wants to take, too.

“I want to go to a well-rounded college, academically and tennis-wise,” said Block, a straight-A student who is interested in following her parents into the medical field. “Columbia would be cool because I’ve known the coach there for years. Harvard is amazing.

“In college, I may try to play some pro events. But I don’t really have pro aspirations. It’s nothing super exciting to me.”

Urhobo, a 13-year-old native of Fort Lauderdale whose paternal grandfather (Tony) is a national track coach back home in Nigeria, thinks of tennis quite differently as compared to Block.

“My main focus,” Urhobo said, “is turning pro in a couple of years.”

Urhobo, just a seventh-grader, is Pine Crest’s No. 1 singles player. She went 10-5 last year and is ranked No. 2 in the nation among potential Class of 2025 recruits, according to Tennis Recruiting.net.

Her father, T.J., is a former pro tennis player and has served as her primary tennis coach. T.J. put a racquet in his daughter’s hands when she was just two-years-old.

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“People thought I was crazy, but she loved it,” T.J. said of his only child. “She would follow me around when I would play tournaments. When she was five, she won a 10-and-under USTA event, and that’s when I knew I had to take this seriously.”

Urhobo’s grandfather sends her workout routines from Nigeria, and those exercises are designed to improve her flexibility and core strength.

So far, the results have been impressive.

“Akasha is a firecracker and a fierce competitor,” said Corey Marsh, Pine Crest’s coach. “She’s already a leader on our team, and she’s not rattled by playing older girls. She’s a prodigy.”

Urhobo, whose first name means “strength” in Nigerian, only occasionally indulges in candy or other sweets.

“It’s because of my dad and how much sacrifice he’s put in,” Urhobo said when asked about her success. “And my grandfather has always worked on my fitness.”

Block, the two-time Miami Herald Player of the Year in Broward County, went 2-0 against Urhobo last season, and they were destined to meet again in 2020 before the coronavirus put a halt to sports.

Miami schools dominated the state last year, winning five of the eight state titles. Miami’s Gulliver Prep swept the boys’ and girls’ titles in Class 2A. In addition, Palmetto (4A boys), Krop (4A girls) and Doral (3A girls) also won state championships.

Among the local boys’ tennis players to watch as their careers progress are:

Pine Crest senior David Lins, a three-time state champion, will play for Harvard next season. He hasn’t lost a high school match since March of 2017 — his freshman year.

Pine Crest junior Andrew Pereverzev, who teamed with Lins to win a state doubles title last year, is a five-star recruit.

Palmetto freshman Francisco Montana, a third-generation tennis standout, is playing No. 1 singles. He also plays No. 1 doubles with senior Cole Gibson, son of Palmetto coach Kelly Gibson.

The Gibson and Montana families go back at least two decades. Gibson grew up playing at the Montana Tennis Club, which no longer exists but used to sit across the street from her high school, Killian. The Montana Tennis Club belonged to Francisco’s family.

Besides Block and Urhobo, here are other girls’ players to watch:

Pine Crest freshman Michaela Landry spent the past summer training and competing on clay courts in France.

Carrollton senior Isabella Leano will play college tennis for LaSalle next season. The Menendez sisters — junior Jimena and freshman Julietta — went a combined 17-3 last season, leading Carrollton to the Class 1A state semifinals.

Krop freshman Gabriela Rondon won a national tournament in January. She is Krop’s No. 1 singles player. (Her brother, Sebastian, is a sophomore and Krop’s No. 1 boys’ singles player.)

Palmetto senior Ally Hayduk, who has signed with Samford, led the Panthers to the 2019 regional finals, where they lost to eventual state champ Krop.

2019 BOYS’ TENNIS STATE CHAMPS

Class 4A: Miami Palmetto

Class 3A: Venice

Class 2A: Gulliver Prep

Class 1A: St. Andrew’s

2019 GIRLS’ TENNIS STATE CHAMPS

Class 4A: Krop

Class 3A: Doral

Class 2A: Gulliver Prep

Class 1A: St. Andrew’s

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