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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS

Bert Has Grown Into No. 1 Singles Position at Westlake

Workout regimen has helped him gain 35 pounds since his freshman year and add power to his serve and forehand.

April 20, 2001|LAUREN PETERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WESTLAKE VILLAGE — Aaron Bert sits on a perch as the No. 1 boys' tennis player at Westlake High.

It was a position the junior first aspired to as a 5-foot-4, 110-pound freshman.

"I was a twig," Bert said.

Thanks to a growth spurt and a more effective serve and forehand, Bert's perspective, and his game, have changed the last few months.

"My serve has really improved, and I've been able to control my emotions more so that I focus better now," Bert said.

"I think I'm able to find a way to win more. I can concentrate and pull out matches that I used to lose. I think it's just a matter of experience. I've really matured a lot."

There's plenty of proof.

Bert, 5-11 and 145 pounds, is 21-0 in round-robin singles sets in seven matches, helping Westlake to a 14-0 record, 10-0 in the Marmonte League. The Warriors have won 35 consecutive matches.

Bert has been held out of half the team's matches, mostly against weaker opponents.

The Warriors, league champions and Southern Section finalists the last four seasons, won the Southern Section Division III title with a 10-8 victory over Beverly Hills last season. They are 57-2 in Bert's 2 1/2 seasons.

Westlake's success has continued despite the graduation of top singles players Alex Yaftali, Narbe Zohrabi and Garrett Wong, and the No. 1 doubles team of Billy Corso and Mike Horak, who fueled a 21-0 record last season.

With Bert, senior Matt Pardee and sophomore Joshua Kuai taking over in singles, plus junior Alex Lee and senior Allen Kim and five sophomores playing doubles, the Warriors are a young but seasoned team.

"Everybody at our school pretty much expects us to win," Bert said. "I think I'd be pretty disappointed if we don't at least get to the final again. But nobody's beaten us yet, so we haven't let anybody down. And we all know we have to keep playing well."

Bert rallied to defeat Brett Condon of Oceanside, 4-6, 6-4, 7-5, and win the Tier 2 bracket of the Fullerton tournament three weeks ago, and has posted two round-robin victories over Tim Mullane, Agoura's No. 1 player, in league matches.

"He's a kid that I practice with a lot, we're pretty good friends, and I'm kind of used to losing to him," Bert said of Mullane. "But I took advantage of my opportunities."

Bert's U.S. Tennis Assn. ranking in Southern California has improved from No. 72 to No. 56 since last year, keeping pace with the higher expectations that came with replacing Yaftali.

"There's a lot of pressure, but I'm really happy that I'm the one that has it," he said.

"I knew it would kind of be up to me and Matt and Josh to take the lead on our team," Bert said. "I think we've lost a little bit of talent at the top with our team, but I think we've gained depth."

Coach Bernard Kuai is not surprised by Bert's assessment.

"He's probably the most humble kid when it comes to tennis," Kuai said. "When he wins, he's almost embarrassed to come and tell me. He just gets the job done. I'm not sure who can beat him in this area other than Philip Sheng."

Bert should face Sheng, a Thousand Oaks senior who won the section singles championship as a sophomore and was runner-up last season, when the teams play on Monday at Thousand Oaks.

Bert did not play Sheng in the teams' first meeting on March 21, when Westlake stacked Bert and Pardee into its doubles lineup en route to a 12-6 victory. It is the only match in which Bert has played doubles.

"Personally, I'd like to play him," Bert said of Sheng, ranked No. 4 nationally in boys' 18s by USTA. "I played him my freshman year, and he pretty much destroyed me. I think I'd do better now."

Predominantly a baseline player before, Bert is working on serving and volleying, and an improved forehand complements a consistent backhand.

Bert's rise as a player has coincided with a workout regimen he began last year that includes weight-lifting three times a week, running two days a week and practicing or playing almost daily. He also works with two private coaches.

"He has a real work ethic," said teammate Alex Sundling. "I think he's taking tennis a lot more seriously, and lately, he's been winning matches he hasn't expected to win. That pumps the team up a lot."

Bert is pleased with his progress, too.

"Last year, I didn't know I could compete with the guys I'm beating this year," Bert said. "I've had a lot of losses and now I've finally started to win some."

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