WHEN North Vancouver's Alexis Prokopuik made it all the way to the championship final of the under-16 Rogers Junior Nationals indoor tennis tournament March 31 in Verdun, Que., she was faced with an opponent and atmosphere that could easily have gotten the best of her.
Across the net was Ontario's Gloria Liang, the No. 1-ranked U16 player in Canada and a girl who had beaten Prokopuik in their previous two meetings. Beyond Liang was the added pressure of the moment, a crowded house at Club de Tennis L'Ile des Soeurs greeting Prokopuik for her first ever national final. Never mind that she had beaten her previous four opponents to make it to the final without dropping a set - this was a different ballgame.
"The people and the banners and the photographers were all there," she told the North Shore News after the tournament. "I just had to kind of focus in on the strings and focus on the ball."
Then the first serve was thudded into play, Prokopuik settled in and, a tidy two sets later, she was Canada's under-16 national champ.
"I won the point and I was just, 'Oh my God,' just to myself. In shock," she said about clinching the title, the biggest win in a young career that includes seven consecutive provincial crowns.
"I just played my game and it worked for me," Prokopuik said about how she dethroned Liang. "I had a strong serve to start off the points and I thought that opened up a lot of great opportunities for me to capitalize on shots and finish off the points quickly or create like an equation, basically, for me to finish it, maybe put it away to the open court. I was really happy with my play as I progressed through the whole tournament."
The Rockridge secondary Grade 10 student got her start in the game when her dad Karlos took her out onto a course when she was six years old. Soon she was in love with the game.
"I basically started with just whacking a ball around," she said. "I had great footwork and good eye-hand coordination. I loved the game so much. Every day, I loved coming out and hitting balls. It just developed from there and my dad has been there the whole way through."
That passion now drives her to train 18-19 hours a week after she finishes her studies in Rockridge's Super Achievers Program. She trains at the Grant Connell Tennis Centre with coach Tracy Bennet and became one of the first athletes to take advantage of the new National Training Centre that opened up in the North Shore Winter Club last fall. Oded Jacob, the centre's leader and a former head coach of Israel's Davis Cup team, has helped her up her game even more.
"Oded has a really good eye for tennis, he's got some smart tactics and some smart little tips for me to take on the road," Prokopuik said. "He's traveled around the world so he has that world experience."
Players like Vernon native Vasek Pospisil, Vancouver's Rebecca Marino and North Vancouver pro Philip Bester and junior Filip Peliwo have recently announced to the world that British Columbia tennis is on the rise. Prokopuik would love to join that wave.
"I want to be a leader," she said. "I want to set that vibe for the younger kids."
Prokopuik won't have to wait long to get another chance to shine - her national championship win earned her a spot on the Canadian Junior Fed Cup team which is headed to Mexico next week for the final qualifying round for the North/Central America & Caribbean region. The team is looking for a berth in the Junior Fed Cup championships scheduled for Sept. 2530 in Barcelona, Spain. This will be Prokopuik's first chance to compete for Canada in international play.
"I've wanted one of those red suits for so long," she said. "Being able to represent Canada is great for me and I hope that I can serve them well and maybe be selected for more future events representing Canada."
Prokopuik said her path is made easier by all the people who are helping her find the way.
"I'm getting the results that I want and I have my supporters - my mom, my dad, my whole family - behind me. Without that support you can't do it all. It's kind of like my parents give, my coaches give so I give and we get good results."