AGOURA HILLS — Ryan Heinberg's steady improvement during a three-hour championship match in the Southern California sectional tennis tournament last weekend mirrored the progress he has made in the last three years.
Heinberg has won consecutive age-group titles in the seventh largest of the U.S. Tennis Assn.'s 17 sections, the latest with a 6-7 (8-6), 7-6 (7-4), 6-4 victory over Paul Warkentin of Santa Barbara for the boys' 18 division title Sunday at Los Caballeros Racquet Club in Fountain Valley.
Heinberg, 17, of Agoura Hills, won the Southern California section boys' 16 championship last year.
Winning back-to-back titles in different age groups is rare because a player's transition to a higher level usually takes time.
Only four other boys in Southern California have accomplished the feat in the last 20 years.
Andrew Park of USC is the only other player during that time to duplicate Heinberg's achievement, winning the 16 championship in 1996 and the 18 title in 1997.
The other repeat section champions won in younger age divisions, including 1989 French Open winner Michael Chang in 1983 and '84.
"Three or four years ago, I never would have thought this would happen," Heinberg said. "But I started working really hard and going to the gym and getting a lot more serious about [tennis]."
Serious improvement and a steady climb through junior tennis has followed.
Heinberg, ranked No. 19 in Southern California boys' 16s in 1998, jumped to No. 1 in the division with his 1999 sectional title and finished the year ranked No. 5 in the nation.
Heinberg (18-6) is ranked No. 6 in boys' 18s in Southern California and No. 48 nationally.
Junior rankings have been affected by the USTA's new super national system that places more emphasis on national events.
Instituted this year, the plan is designed to encourage greater participation in national events. But Southern California section officials fear the system will dilute their fields and weaken other tournaments.
It happened in the boys' 18 division of the sectional tournament, where Heinberg was the top-seeded player because eight of the top nine players in Southern California were absent.
"We knew this was going to happen," said John Lansville, the Southern California section's manager of player development. "It's frustrating when you don't get your own players to play in your tournament."
Heinberg realizes the field was weakened by the absence of top players, but it didn't affect his performance.
"Whatever came up, I still had to play, I still had to win," he said. "I would have liked to play them, but I think it wouldn't have really mattered. I knew I was playing well going into [the sectional]."
Heinberg defeated a string of recognized players, including Goh Fukugaki of Rancho Palos Verdes, Cameron Ball of Newport Beach, Scott Spencer of Rolling Hills Estates, Dante Haynes of Compton and Warkentin, the high school division runner-up at Ojai in April.
In addition, Heinberg and Amir Marandy of Woodland Hills advanced to the section's doubles semifinals.
Warkentin, who struggled with leg cramps last weekend, gave Heinberg his due.
"He's got amazing ground strokes," Warkentin said. "Every time I'd go to the net and hit a great volley, it seemed like he'd somehow get there and make this amazing return. I'm not used to that."
Heinberg, who will attend Duke, continued a family tradition.
His sister, USC player Krissy Hamilton-Heinberg, was 13 when she won the girls' 18 sectional title in 1993.
Ryan, a surfing enthusiast, was never considered as good as his sister--until recently.
"It's not easy to win two in a row," said Craig Heinberg, Ryan's father and coach. "He's worked pretty hard the last three years."