Off the tennis court, Matt Barnett is all smiles and politeness, but face him across the net, racquet in hand, and he becomes a fiercely competitive athlete.
"It's fun when I win but not fun when I lose," said the 9-year-old, who earlier this year was ranked No. 1 in Tennessee in the boys 10 age division of the U.S. Tennis Association.
That distinction comes six years after Matt first took up a racquet and two years after he played his first tournament at Manker Patten Tennis Club.
Using USTA's new Quick Start format for younger players, all competitors in the 10-and-under division must soon begin competing on smaller courts using less-pressurized balls and smaller racquets.
After years of competing on the same courts using the same equipment as adults, that would have been a step back for Matt, said Trevor Hurd, who has coached him for two years at the Lookout Mountain Fairyland Club.
Last year, faced with continuing to compete in his age division with the new rules, Matt opted to "play up" in boys 12-and-under. In addition to topping the ranks in the younger division, Matt was ranked No. 32 in the state in the older league, despite competing against players often older and bigger.
That reflects as much on the training Matt has received in the deeper elements of the game as his competitive spirit, Hurd said.
"Whereas other players may be happy with just getting a ball back in play consistently, we've really focused on learning to break down opponents and attack short balls, looking to finish the point," Hurd said. "To summarize it, he plays more to win, where other kids will play not to lose."
Despite being able to compete on equal footing with older players, Matt said one aspect of his game he needs to develop is his emotional maturity.
"The only thing I need to work on is not getting as mad," he said. "When you miss a shot in tennis and you're playing competitively for something you really want to win, it's really hard to keep it down."
Hurd competed from 1993-1994 in the Association of Tennis Professionals. After watching him win last year at Girls Preparatory School against a player two years his senior, Hurd said he determined Matt had professional potential.
CLAIM TO FAME
As of January, tennis player Matt Barnett was ranked No. 1 in Tennessee in the boys 10 age division. He was also ranked No. 32 in the boys 12 division.
Do you know a child age 12 or younger with a precocious talent in academics, athletics or the arts? The Times Free Press is searching for children to feature in "Talent Show," which appears in the Life section on Tuesdays. To nominate a child as a possible subject of a future feature article, e-mail staff writer Casey Phillips at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 423-757-6205.
"He fought back and won the match in a tie-breaker," Hurd said. "That's when I realized, 'He could really do it. He could go on and play tennis at the professional level.'"
Matt was first introduced to tennis by his mother and father, Andrea and Dan Barnett, who continued taking to the courts together until two weeks before he was born.
"All the women on my tennis team would laugh and say, 'He's going to be at Wimbledon one day,'" Barnett said, laughing. "It's in the blood, I guess."
Barnett has transported her son to about one competition per month since he started playing, including to last year's regional competition in Bradenton, Fla.
Although Matt is content for now with victories at state and regional competitions, he said he has had much loftier goals since he was 6.
"What drives [the competitiveness] is the No. 1 challenge I have: to win Wimbledon and all the Grand Slams," he said. "When I saw Wimbledon and U.S. [Open] on TV ... that's when I started dreaming I would win those."
Contact Casey Phillips at email@example.com or 423-757-6205.