8 the hard way
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- James Kent finished the men's open singles finals at the Charleston Public Courts tennis tournament the same way he started it, by doing maybe the toughest thing there is to do at the event - breaking Patrick Walker's serve.
Squeezed between was a three-plus-hour, back-and-forth, grinding match that kept a healthy crowd glued to its seats in the late July heat Saturday at Schoenbaum Courts in Kanawha City.
In the end, the tournament crowned a new all-time leader in men's open singles titles as Kent survived the six-time champion Walker 7-5 (7-6), 4-6, 7-5 to pick up his eighth championship and first since 2005, when he tied Kevin Ball's record of seven titles.
Kent's win also denied Walker the accomplishment of tying them both at seven crowns.
"It really hasn't sunk in yet," an exhausted Kent said of his eighth title. "I was just focusing on playing every match this tournament at a high level, and for the most part I think I did."
He displayed that high level several times when he needed to on Saturday.
With the score tied 5-5 in the deciding third set, Walker had two chances at breaking Kent and taking control of the match.
Instead, the 34-year-old fought off the younger Walker, rallied to claim the sixth point and then shut down Walker's serve to polish off the win.
"It was a very physical match. Pat served extremely well the whole match," Kent said. "The only good look I had on a serve was that last game. He wasn't going for the angles and I put some returns in play. It was very hard. He hits such a heavy ball - he pushed me to the limit but I played well, focused, and luckily I came through."
Walker had won four titles in a row and six of the last seven but fell just short on Saturday, marking the first time he's come up short when entering the Public Courts men's open.
Two of those title wins came at the expense of Kent in 2006 and 2009.
"He just played better," Walker said. "That's just all there is to it."
It was Kent who told a young Walker about the Public Courts tournament years ago, and at the end of Saturday's match, Walker met Kent at the net with a smile and a hug.
The respect between the two is evident when watching them play, and Kent admitted that simply beating Walker was an accomplishment in itself.
"I knew I was playing well coming in," Kent said. "But anytime you play Pat it just comes down to a break or two because he puts so much pressure on you to hold [your serve] because he holds his so easily, especially when he's firing aces. You're just a spectator at that time."
It was Kent's first appearance at the tournament since 2010, and on Saturday the former Capital and West Virginia University player left no doubt that he's playing better than ever. He wouldn't mind a rematch in the finals next year, and Walker agreed.
"He's going to come back hungrier," Kent said of Walker. "He'll break the record, I'm confident in that. He's younger than I am and he could have easily won that match. He had a break point to go up to serve for the match. It could have gone either way."
"I think he will [be back]," Walker said of Kent. "I hope so. He wants to push it and he knows I want to get it so I think he'll be back."
Reach Ryan Pritt at 304-348-7948, firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him at twitter.com/RPritt.