Desert Vista tennis

Desert Vista's Ahmad Saleem displays his only emotion during the state singles championship after winning the match point.

Larry Ward/AFN

For more than two hours, Ahmad Saleem played tennis with a poker face.

He kept his swings of frustration, relief and elation under wraps throughout three sets of the state boys 5A-1 individual state championship match.

Then it became too much to keep in check.

The Desert Vista senior closed his eyes, raised both arms above his head and briefly permitted himself to indulge in victory after he won the match point and his first state title with a comeback 2-6, 6-2, 6-3 win over Tucson Salpointe Catholic's Mitch McDaniels Saturday afternoon at the Paseo Racquet Club in Glendale.

It was the first state championship for Saleem as well as the Desert Vista boys tennis program.

In 2007 and 2008, Saleem and former doubles partner Jacob Barnaby were runners-up in the state doubles championship.

As he promised, Desert Vista coach Wayne Brimley called Barnaby, now a sophomore and playing on the Johns Hopkins tennis team, with the news.

"It probably wasn't the best match I've ever played," Saleem said, "but it was my most memorable."

Tempe Corona del Sol's Garret Dunn sidetracked Saleem's quest for a state singles championship with a semifinal victory last season. Saleem was awarded third place on a default after, ironically, McDaniels withdrew from the round.

Mountain Pointe junior Nathan Keso made it to the quarterfinal round before losing to Mesa Dobson's Jake Spizman. McDaniels defeated Spizman to get into the title match.

Brimley had taken Saleem to the finals before and said he felt this was the senior's year.

"We told him to keep hitting with (McDaniels) and try to make him move as much as possible," Brimley said. "I felt that Ahmad was in better physical shape."

But Saleem used more than physical tools during the match. He had played against former friendly rivals such as Mountain Pointe's two-time state champion Andy Nguyen and Dunn for the past couple of seasons and saw that they didn't display emotions.

He learned from that.

"When I was fighting back, it was mental," Saleem said. "I stayed pretty sound, and I didn't show any emotion."

Conversely, Saleem said he could tell from McDaniels' face and body language that the Salpointe senior was losing control of the match.

"He started breaking down a little bit," Saleem said. "He was getting impatient and missing by a little bit."

Saleem said he was doing the same in the opening set when McDaniels won four straight sets and looked like he would cruise to a title on a day when winds gusts had the ball dancing all over the court.

"In the beginning my rhythm wasn't there," Saleem said, "and with the windy conditions and the atmosphere of all the people watching, I was a little impatient."

Saleem had a 4-0 lead in the third set and had his eye on the prize when McDaniels started to rally.

"I stepped down a little bit when I should have been more aggressive," Saleem explained. "He came back, and I had to focus and concentrate more."

Saleem will be going to Grand Canyon University next fall and admitted thinking about the finals being his last opportunity to win a state title.

"There was a little pressure there thinking I had to win this time," Saleem said, "but sometimes that can be a good thing, too."

And when he received his first championship gold medal, he even allowed himself to smile a little.


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