Young Tennis Phenom Najarian Dazzles Pros

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, Mich.—Her name is Alexandra Najarian and her game is tennis.

Alexandria Najarian is pumped up with victory on the tennis courts.

The young stalwart is carving quite an impression on the courts of Greater Detroit these days, winning titles while helping her high school team in a quest for repeated state titles.

Despite all the honors that have come her way, all the top billings she has recorded, nothing will compete with that moment recently when she took on the professionals and more than held her own.

In tennis acumen, they call it the Power Shares Series, a venue of touring stars like Pete Sampras, John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, and Jim Courier traveling the exhibition circuit.

It just so happened that Auburn Hills was part of the tour and seated in the audience was Alex, full of anticipation: One day, perhaps, she might be playing before thousands of fans at the coveted Palace Arena.

The moment came sooner than expected for the 16-year-old. When a call rang out for a volunteer from the stands to take on Sampras, up jumped Alex to meet the challenge.

On her way to center court, she encountered Courier. “Here, use my racquet,” said the one-time professional star. “You might need it against Pete.”

Here was a player who had earned millions on the court. For six straight years, Sampras was ranked Number 1 in the world, winning Wimbledon 7 times and reaching 19 Grand Slam finals.

Could the junior from Cranbrook Kingswood live up to the dare?

According to other Armenians at the scene, Sampras had served two straight aces, leaving Lendl looking helpless, with bombs that were legit, just like stuff from the U.S. Open.

After the second ace, Courier shook his head, walked off the court, and offered his racquet to anyone who would want to take on the Sampras serve.

So on came Najarian and took Courier’s racquet. People were leaning on their seats as this Detroit AYF member suddenly stole the spotlight.

Those in the Armenian community of Detroit already knew of Alex’s prodigious game, having read about her conquests around high school circles and community venues. The Palace before four of the greatest players who ever prevailed was yet another story. Little did they know about Najarian.

Sampras took one look at the girl and smiled. No power puff match for him. His first serve to the girl was relatively moderate with a kick. Was he holding back?

Much to his surprise, she returned it cleanly and they continued exchanging strokes like a Grand Slam finale.

Alex then hit a shot that pulled Sampras off the court. He returned it with a lob to center court, obviously stunned by her demeanor.

The youngster caught up to the ball and bashed it away as Sampras looked on with awe. The venerable pro dropped his racquet in apparent disbelief as the crowd roared with approval. Alex Najarian had won over the fans this evening at the Palace, applauding her every move.

According to Harry Derderian, who attended the exhibition on his birthday, it took an Armenian to truly highlight the evening. Derderian was no slouch in his younger days, winning 10 consecutive tournaments at AYF Olympics before seeing his reign stopped in the early 1970’s.

According to her proud father Richard, it was more of a “hit-around” than a match that Alex was invited to join.

“She actually hit with Lendl and Courier,” said the elder Najarian. “Alex took a liking to Courier’s game and targeted him during some of the drills. I guess it was enjoyable for him and he later requested that she return to the Palace for tennis matches. She agreed and they gave her a seat next to the court.”

During the second match between Sampras and Courier, Sampras served a couple aces. Courier then looked to the crowd and asked who could try and return one of those shots.

“He picked Alex as a ‘ringer’ to hit against Sampras,” the father said. “Pete had no idea about her capabilities. The crowd cheered every return and, in fact, gave her a standing ovation. Years of hard work and training every day throughout the year had paid off. Even though she was a bundle of nerves, she played well and won the point on an overhead smash into the corner.”

The Detroit News had a field day with the simulated match, giving Najarian her due notice.

“I’m okay with it,” Sampras said, laughing at being upstaged by the young Armenian. “It’s not easy for someone sitting there and watching. I’m sure she was a little bit nervous, but she was great.”

As for Najarian, the experience will remain indelible in her book of memories.

“That was awesome,” she said glowingly. “That was legendary. I was nervous and then I played around with angles. Sampras wasn’t expecting anything.”

Najarian is the real deal when it comes to this sport. She attends and plays high school tennis at Cranbrook Kingswood in Bloomfield Hills. She has won her division state championship two years in a row and led her team to two straight state titles, going undefeated over this stretch.

She will be starting her third high school season next March. High school takes away from her daily regimen and training with her private coaches, but she loves the camaraderie of team tennis and is known for helping her colleagues.

Her first state crown as a freshman was against a girl who had previously been unbeaten throughout high school and received a tennis scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh.

She plays between 12-14 tournaments a year, criss-crossing the country to appear in such places as Phoenix, Boston, St. Louis, and San Diego. Her rigid schedule prevented her from playing the AYF Olympics this fall in Boston.

This past July, she played the Girls’ 16s in the Summer Super Nationals in San Diego, taking sixth in singles and third in doubles against 192 of the top players in the country. It’s one step below the main draw of a U.S. Open appearance in Flushing Meadow, N.Y., which could be next for the talented basher.

She owns several national doubles titles and has a gold, silver, and bronze from three different Super National Tournaments.

Though still a junior, Alex is currently going through the recruiting process with several Division 1 universities.

She’s the daughter of Richard and Stephanie Najarian, and sister to 14-year-old Aram, no doubt another class act.

Tom Vartabedian

Tom Vartabedian

Tom Vartabedian is a retired journalist with the Haverhill Gazette, where he spent 40 years as an award-winning writer and photographer. He has volunteered his services for the past 46 years as a columnist and correspondent with the Armenian Weekly, where his pet project was the publication of a special issue of the AYF Olympics each September.
Tom Vartabedian

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