By Gabriel Stovall
FAYETTEVILLE, Ga. — In an instant, Starr’s Mill’s Dubie Dublin and Union Grove’s Nathan Connelly can go from friends to foes.
One minute they’re teammates, and the next minute, adversaries.
Don’t worry. They aren’t confused, nor is their relationship contentious. They just happen to be members of the same Southern Crescent tennis fraternity, while on different sides of the net all at the same time.
Case in point, Rome, Ga this past weekend. Dublin and Connelly just wrapped up a stint of doubles action during a travel tennis tournament.
They were paired up as teammates. Won their first match, lost their second.
It didn’t sit well with Connelly at all. The No. 1 Union Grove singles player hopped out of the car after getting back from Rome, cooled off a minute and hopped back in to head to a tennis court.
He needed to practice. He doesn’t like to lose, with or without Dublin.
“It’s not a good feeling to lose,” Connelly said. “I’m gonna head up to the courts and let my dad feed me some balls and work on some serves. I didn’t do well getting to the net in time. My backhand and serve was a little off. I’ve gotta work on the things I didn’t do well this time.”
You see, he’s got a big match next week. So does Dublin. They’ll be on the same court at the same time, but just not on the same side of the net.
Next week Union Grove and Starr’s Mill will meet on the tennis court in the Region 4-AAAAA tournament. It’s not the first time the two schools met with championship bragging rights on the line. Two years ago the Panthers knocked off the Wolverines for the Class AAAAA crown.
Connelly’s friend won those bragging rights.
“Oh yeah, there were definitely bragging rights,” Connelly said. “Dubie had ‘em that year.”
Said Dublin: “Yes, there were definitely some (bragging rights) I was able to have, but since we didn’t play each other, it wasn’t as much as it could’ve been.”
That year Connelly — a freshman — lost in three sets to Starr’s Mill senior Frank Rogers. Dublin could only watch his friend’s defeat with conflicting emotions.
“It definitely makes it tough playing against your friend, because you don’t wanna beat them, obviously,” Dublin said. “And you don’t want to see them get beat, but you love the fact that your team is winning.”
The ambivalent feelings will, no doubt, take center stage again when the two juniors face off. They’ve known each other since “the age of nine,” Connelly said. They met on the travel tennis circuit and hit it off quickly.
“When we were younger, we’d meet in random tennis tournaments,” Dublin said. “I don’t think we really played against each other much, but we always saw each other and knew who he was in the tournaments and stuff, and when our high school teams started playing each other. Then we played each other individually, and that’s sort of when the rivalry began. Through that we’ve just become really good friends.”
And even better foes.
Overall Connelly has a better record (12-1 individually) than Dublin (12-5) in high school play this year. But their mark against each other is dead even.
“We played twice in the high school season last year,” Dublin said.
“Yeah, we did,” Connelly added. “I won one, he won one and both ended with tiebreakers.”
This season, Dublin’s got the 1-0 advantage over his buddy. Stay tuned, though. That number could very well change, although both players say it will be hard to celebrate when either of them win.
“I know we’re going to probably end up playing each other next week,” Connelly said. “I hate playing friends. It’s hard to do. It’s like you turn into frienemies. But we battle each other on the court, and give each other a hug after the match. It’s just something about playing a friend when you’re really good friends with them.
“You want to beat them, but then you don’t, but then you do.”
Sounds confusing, huh? Dublin says he thoroughly understands.
“When we’re traveling together and playing good together it’s one thing,” Dublin said. “It’s easy to cheer for each other because we’re on the same side. But then during the high school season, there’s more school pride at stake. You’re playing for your team. That’s the big difference.”
Strategy is another stark difference in playing a friendly foe as opposed to an unfamiliar one. Connelly says his familiarity with Dublin actually makes it a harder match to prepare for.
“You know their strengths and their weaknesses,” Connelly said. “You know it starting off right from the first point. It makes me feel like I’ve got to work on my weaknesses to make them my strengths.”
“You obviously know what your opponent will be doing,” he said. “But you also have to try to do something slightly different with your own game. They know what you know, and that makes you feel like you’ve got to kind of doing something new, which could turn out good or bad.”
As for the way their teams stack up, Starr’s Mill and Union Grove look to be every bit as talented as the two squads that battled for state supremacy back in 2013. In fact, Dublin thinks his friend’s team is much better.
“I think we have as talented of a team as two years ago,” Dublin said. “But for (Union Grove), back then Nathan was the best player on his team, and he was a freshman. That meant that they were young and maybe not as good, but now they have more players and Nathan is far more experienced. They just look better all the way around, I’m sure.”
Connelly gives a similarly favorable scouting report of Starr’s Mill.
“They’ve lost a few and gained a few,” he said. “But they’re about as good as they were back then. Hopefully we’re a little better.”
And hopefully Connelly will be able to knot up the season series with his partner.
Either way it goes, Connelly said the animosity won’t last long.
“The competition between us is really high,” Connelly said, “But we trash talk while we’re there, and just go on back to being friends afterward.”
And Dublin said it doesn’t take long for them to put the rackets down and press reset on the friendship.
“It’ll probably be later that day once all the matches have finished,” Dublin said. “We have no hard feelings. We probably, most likely will see both our teams make it to the state tournament. We’ll wish each other well, until we play each other.”