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Move south pays off for Pittsburgh area tennis players

Tennis player Jon Ho expected to spend only a few months training at the Brandon Sports and Aquatic Center in Florida several years ago.

"I went down for the summer," said Ho, 18, of Franklin Park. "My family and I stayed in a hotel, thinking we wouldn't be there very long.

"I felt myself improving. I was getting a broader range of competition than I was in Pittsburgh. I asked my parents if it would be possible if I could train there all the time."

The move, which became permanent, paid off.

Ho, a Wake Forest University recruit, is ranked 33rd in the nation by the United States Tennis Association in the boys age 18 level B division, and first in Middle States in the boys 18 division.

His sister, Jessica, 15, who also trains year-round at Brandon, has done even better, ranking third in the nation in singles and doubles in the girls 16 division. She won the girls 16 singles title at the USTA Winter National Championships in December at Scottsdale, Ariz.

She is ranked No. 1 in the girls 14 and 16 divisions in Middle States, which consists of Pennsylvania, Delaware, the panhandle of West Virginia and most of New Jersey.

"I don't think either Jon or I would be doing as well if we hadn't come to Brandon," Jessica said.

"Jessica has always worked hard, but Jon has had some disappointments," their mother, Ellan Ho, said. "There were times where I thought he would become discouraged and quit. But he stayed with it.

Whole family supports the move

"Instead of going back and forth between (Franklin Park) and Florida, we all decided it would be nice to live in Florida throughout the year. We bought a house, in addition to the one we own in Franklin Park. Everybody was happy, including Jon, who ended up doing very well."

Jon and Jessica, who travel across the country to compete, play in several Middle States tournaments a year. They are enrolled in online classes at a Florida cyber school, where Jessica is a freshman and Jon a senior. They live in Florida with their mother. Their father, an environmental consultant, lives in Franklin Park.

"When we were younger, I used to tag along with Jon to tennis matches," Jessica said. "Watching him play made me want to play. I wouldn't be playing if it was not for him."

"Jon is a late bloomer," Brandon junior tennis director Andrew Golub said. "He's been overshadowed by his sister, who is more advanced than he was at the same age.

"Jon has the physical tools -- he's tall and lanky and moves well. He's a good athlete, but we've had to work hard on building his confidence so he could become a major college prospect. We've had to convince him how talented he really is."

Jon and Jessica are part of a bumper crop of junior tennis players from Western Pennsylvania.

Others make their mark

Bjorn Fratangelo, 18, of Plum is ranked fifth in the world among junior players by the International Tennis Federation. Last year, he became the first American since John McEnroe in 1977 to win the French Open Junior Championship.

University of Michigan recruit Ronit Yurovsky, also of Plum, is ranked ninth in the nation in the USTA girls 18 division.

Amanda Nord of O'Hara is 49th in the nation and first in Middle States in the girls 12 division.

A.J. Catanzariti of Mt. Lebanon is ranked 26th in the nation and No. 1 in Middle States in the boys 16 division.

"In 15 years, I don't think I've ever seen a group this good," said Tom Benic, an Allegheny Mountain board member. Part of Middle States, Allegheny Mountain covers western Pennsylvania and part of West Virginia.

"Western Pennsylvania has become fertile ground for tennis players."

Catanzariti, who reached the quarterfinals in boys 16 singles at the Winter National Championships, recently moved to College Park, Md., to train year-round at the Junior Tennis Champions Center.

Established in 1999, the center has produced 11 national champions over the past five years.

"I knew since I was 12 that I wanted to move away to train," Catanzariti said. "There are good players in Pittsburgh, but not enough. It's a small city. You get more variety when you train elsewhere."

Catanzariti is training under Misha Kouznetsov, a senior professional who once coached him in Pittsburgh.

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