Cleveland plays role of team leader

Published 12:03 am Wednesday, May 2, 2012

ROD GUAJARDO | The Natchez Democrat — Natchez High School junior Michael J. Cleveland practices Tuesday afternoon at the Duncan Park Tennis Courts. Cleveland is on a mixed doubles team with teammate Whitney Jackson. The two partners qualified to compete in the first round of the state tournament May 7. Cleveland also played boys’ doubles this season.

NATCHEZ — Natchez High School tennis player Michael J. Cleveland admits that his game is still a work in progress.

His serve and forehand are coming along, but he still has a long way to go to get to the level of play that he wants, he said.

But ask teammates, coaches and opponents about Cleveland’s leadership and attitude, and they will tell you that those characteristics are in top form.

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“He’s very inspirational,” Natchez tennis coach Delores Whitley said. “He is the Christian athlete that every coach would want.

“He’s so well liked the other team, our opponents, will ask, ‘Where’s Michael?’”

Whitley said Cleveland has the ability to communicate with his teammates, and that makes him a good leader.

“I say something, and if it doesn’t come across good enough, I’ll just say Michael you get it.”

Cleveland said his likability is genetic, and he comes from a long line of friendly and talkative people.

“I just don’t stop talking,” he said. “If the team needs a boost I’m there. I talk to opponents, too. I really just joke around with them.”

Natchez tennis director Henry Harris said Cleveland picked up tennis approximately three years ago, and he literally started from scratch.

“When he came here he couldn’t hit the ball over the fence,” Harris said. “But he’s worked hard and learned to keep balls in. He’s done well.”

Cleveland said he wanted to try tennis because many of his friends were playing, but at first the game was hard.

“To tell the truth I wanted to quit, but I didn’t give up,” he said. “And once you learn the basics, it’s easier.”

Cleveland calls himself an “OK player,” but he hopes to continue to improve.

“I’ve come a long way, but I’m not where I want to be,” he said.

Cleveland said tennis is a game that continues to challenge him, and that is why he enjoys playing.

“It keeps me running,” he said. “I don’t like to be still a lot. I love running down the ball, and it keeps my mind sharp.”

Despite Cleveland’s desire to improve, he and his teammate, Whitney Jackson, have done pretty well in mixed doubles this season. The two qualified to play in the first round of the state tournament May 7.

“It was thrilling (to advance),” Cleveland said. “We worked hard for that match.”

Cleveland said he has a great relationship with Jackson.

“It’s very fun,” he said. “We’ve argued a lot, but we still get along.

“She’s way better than me. I think we’ve done a great job (this year). We couldn’t have done better.”

Cleveland said the two partners keep each other focused during their matches, and he tried playing doubles with a male partner earlier in the season, but it just did not work.

“It was OK, but we didn’t have the same connection,” he said.

Cleveland hopes the partnership will lead the two players farther in the playoffs.

“I hope to make to the second round of state,” he said.