The force is strong with the young one.
The jump pass-style, two-handed backhand, just the thing for doing battle with a heavy, top-spin serve, is real Jedi stuff.
Yusuke Yodono doesn’t walk from place to place between points; he bounds.
Then there’s the thing about the Maryville High School freshman that’s really different.
“What surprised me is how much he eats!” Rebel junior and doubles partner Ryota Yoshida said.
More on that a little later.
Yoshida and Yodono finished one win short of a state doubles championship at the BlueCross Spring Fling last week at Old Fort Park, but the Rebel pairing left with nothing to hang their heads about.
Science Hill’s Conner Knox and Owen Rockett stopped Yodono and Yoshida, 6-2, 6-4, in the Class AAA championship match, the Maryville duo fighting off five match points in an attempt to get back on serve. The finals defeat came after the pair had dispatched quarterfinal and semifinal opponents, 6-3, 6-2 and 6-0, 6-0, respectively.
Last week’s state tournament run, the third consecutive for Yoshida, was never simply about the tennis, though. That Yodono and Yoshida were there in the first place is quite the story in itself.
Yoshida moved to Blount County with his family from Japan five years ago when his father, Takeshi, was transferred here by his company, Denso Manufacturing Tennessee. Yoshida was in the seventh-grade at the time. He knew very little English. Classes at nearby Maryville College helped, but mostly he kept to himself.
Gradually, Yoshida said he began heeding his own advice to “just try. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes (learning English).”
It’s an approach Yoshida’s mother, Yukiyo, only encouraged. Getting homesick wasn’t going to help.
“If you just think about that, if you just think about Japan,” Yukiyo said, “you can’t.”
Yodono would follow the same path years later when his father, Satoru, was transferred to Denso’s Maryville operations.
“He focused on English in junior high school,” Satoru Yodono said. “Everyday, he studied English. I was very lucky. Yusuke’s personal characteristics were perfect.”
When it came to learning English, like Yoshida, Yodono said he resolved to at least try. Rebel teammates like senior Justin Hawkersmith and junior Wesley McNeillie did a lot to ease the transition.
“I couldn’t understand it very well,” Yodono said. “They were kind to me to help me on it.”
When it came to tennis, Yoshida’s mother, Yukiyo, did a lot to pave the way, Yodono said.
“His mom told me I could play tennis in Tennessee,” he said. “So his mom worked hard getting information for me.”
Tennis, a sport he’d played since he was 6, was Yoshida’s refuge when he first arrived. The nickname “Yoda” was attached shortly after he made the Maryville High varsity three years ago, in part because it was an easy way to shorten his first name. The moniker stuck because Yoshida’s calm, purposeful demeanor was so in keeping with the Yoda of the popular “Star Wars” series.
“We added the ‘D,’” Maryville tennis coach Elizabeth Huffaker said.
On the tennis court, Yoshida was an ace, “Mr. Smooth,” Huffaker said. With former doubles partner Lucas Kelly, he’d made the state tournament each of the last two years, both times reaching the championship match.
Earlier this season, Yoshida informed Huffaker he was moving back to Japan to start college in December. If he was to have another run at state, this would have to be it. Choosing the right player for Yoshida to partner with was all important.
Enter the young the apprentice.
“I just had to trust the chemistry between them,” Huffaker said. “Everybody embraced Yusuke. Yusuke has a sense of humor you have to love. He’s an only child, and he’s the light in his parents’ eyes.”
The reserved, cool Yoshida and the excitable Yodono seemed a perfect match the first time they took the court together, Huffaker said. Yodono was a prankster and incorrigibly rambunctious. The initial language barrier did little to hide it, even when Yodono, Yoshida and Rebel teammate Syu Muto conversed entirely in Japanese.
“We rode to the Hendersonville tournament together,” Rebel teammate Wesley McNeillie said, “the four of us. They were speaking Japanese the whole time.”
On the way home, the team stopped for dinner, and the slightly-built Yodono put on an eating display that left his teammates - and a few parents - all but speechless.
“We’ve never seen anything like that, and it was Italian,” Dawn Hawkersmith, Justin’s mom, said.
“He ate what Wesley had and the other three players had,” Yoshida said.
Selecting Yodono to partner with Yoshida for the postseason was a tough call, Huffaker said. Muto and Yodono were all but interchangeable in that respect.
“I cannot emphasize enough the importance of him on this team,” Huffaker said.
At state, Yoshida and Yodono clicked as if they’d been playing together for years. Never once over the two days did they look rattled, even when the championship match began to go against them.
“He doesn’t get mad,” Yodono said. “He’s very consistent.”
The energy Yodono brings to the court, Yoshida said, is infectious.
“He’s always energized,” he said. “He always has a positive attitude.”
During an hour-long stoppage in play to let a thunderstorm pass, Team Maryville huddled under a nearby pavilion to stay dry. Science Hill was already up a break when play was halted. Didn’t phase Yodono one bit.
Knowledgeable of the nickname the team had give Yoshida, making him, by default, the young Skywalker, Yodono had a ready handle for his coach.
“Vader,” he said. “Just kidding. Don’t print that.”
Even Huffaker doubled over in laughter.
“Guess I’m going to have to learn how to do that voice,” she said.
Down 3-5 in the deciding set, with Rockett and Knox serving for the match, Yoshida and Yodono uncorked a series of winners to get the break, erasing the five match points in doing so.
“They’re good,” Rockett said. “They scared us there at the end.”
Four big Knox serves later and Science Hill closed it out to claim the school’s first state doubles titles.
“I think he did a great job,” Yukiyo Yoshida said. “He was here three times. I think he enjoyed his high school tennis.”
Yoshida’s return to Japan would seem to hinder Yodono’s chances of returning to the state tournament next season, but fear not. There is another.
Yoshida has a younger brother, and rising freshman Yusuke Yoshida, McNeillie said, is really going to be a force to be reckoned with.