Lynnwood High School foreign exchange student Nicolas Desgrippes hails from the city of Toulouse in southern France.
Edmonds-Woodway exchange student Sebastian Fernandez comes from Chihuahua in northern Mexico.
Between them, Desgrippes and Fernandez are spending this school year a combined 6,500-plus miles away from home, having traded those comforts for a year of new experiences in the United States.
And on Wednesday afternoon, the two tennis stars will square off against each other for the Class 3A Northwest District singles title.
Desgrippes and Fernandez both earned a pair of district tournament victories Tuesday afternoon to advance to the district final, which is scheduled for 1 p.m. Wednesday at Arlington High School. With their triumphs Tuesday, both players punched their tickets to the 3A state singles tournament May 29-30 in Kennewick.
“It’s pretty cool for both of them,” Lynnwood coach Bill Moliter said.
Their accomplishments Tuesday are simply the latest in their success-filled campaigns.
Desgrippes, who just recently turned age 15, hasn’t dropped a set all season. The French native cruised to the Wesco 3A South title last week and continued his dominance in Tuesday’s district tournament, earning a 6-1, 6-0 quarterfinal win over Oak Harbor’s Ezra Franklin and a 6-1, 6-3 semifinal victory over Arlington’s Taras McCurdie.
“It’s incredible to watch him,” Moliter said. “You could tell right when he started hitting a ball (at practice) how good he was. He’s powerful (and) he’s so smooth on the court. He just always knows where to be, and he knows what to hit. … His skill level is so high.”
Born in Paris, Desgrippes comes from a tennis family. After first learning how to play from his grandfather, he joined a tennis club at a young age and continued to learn under his coach there. He said he competes in a number of tournaments back home, typically playing from September to June or July.
“It’s amazing because he’s not a huge kid, but man, he hits the ball hard and he hits it accurately,” Moliter said. “Every ball he hits, he makes such good contact. It’s pretty amazing to watch. Even the sound of the ball coming off his racket — you know somebody on the court next to you is playing well just because of the sound.”
Moliter said Desgrippes’ presence elevated the entire Lynnwood boys tennis program and helped lead the Royals to likely one of their best seasons ever.
Lynnwood matched its win total from the previous four seasons combined and posted a 7-7 overall record, which Moliter said is the best known mark in program history. The Royals also advanced one doubles pair and two singles players — including Desgrippes — to the second day of the Wesco 3A South tournament. Prior to this season, Moliter said his program had never advanced any players to the second day.
“It brought up the skill level of everybody else we had,” Moliter said. “The rising tide lifts all boats, and he kind of did that for us. … There’s just an excitement that he brought, and he really got along with (his teammates). … He’s a really, really nice kid.”
Unlike Desgrippes, Fernandez said he only began playing tennis about three years ago. But with a rigorous training schedule, the 16-year-old Mexican native quickly developed into a talented player.
Fernandez said he trains back home with his coach for 10 months out of the year — typically six days a week and four to five hours each day. He also competes in about eight tournaments per year.
“It’s a high-level program, so it’s hard, but it’s pretty cool,” he said. “I love it.”
Fernandez also went unbeaten during the regular season, sweeping nearly every match. However, an injury kept him from facing Desgrippes in their teams’ league match last month, Edmonds-Woodway coach Dan Crist said.
Crist said Fernandez then reaggravated an injury during last week’s Wesco 3A South tournament, where he fell in a three-set semifinal defeat to Squalicum’s Thomas Synott before bouncing back in the consolation bracket to qualify for district.
But Fernandez had no such problems Tuesday, earning a 6-1, 6-1 district quarterfinal win over Snohomish’s Macen Strickland before avenging his loss to Synott with a 6-1, 6-1 semifinal sweep.
“He’s played a lot of tournament tennis,” Crist said. “He has experience. He knows how to play the game, so he’s just not putting the ball back into play. He’s thinking about what he has to do and how to win points.
“He’s got a good serve,” Crist added. “He doesn’t just hit the same serve hard and soft — he’s got multiple serves. And he’s basically a backcourt player. He’s got good strokes. … Find me 100 (players) like him. You just don’t get players like that very often.”
Fernandez’s brother, Manny, was a foreign exchange student and tennis player last school year at Fort Vancouver High School in Vancouver, Washington. In a remarkable coincidence, Manny Fernandez fell in a 3A state singles tournament consolation match this past spring to Synott — the same player Sebastian Fernandez defeated Tuesday to clinch a state berth. Manny Fernandez also faced an Edmonds-Woodway player at state last season.
“We didn’t find (that) out until last week,” Crist said.
Sebastian Fernandez’s speedy development as a tennis player mirrors how quickly he’s grasped the English language. Though Fernandez said he only started learning English about a year ago, one would never surmise that after talking with him.
“He’s a good player, but he’s also a good kid,” Crist said. “He does everything he’s supposed to do (and) he works with other kids.”
While both Desgrippes and Fernandez appear to have adjusted well to life in a new country, the latter admitted there’s one thing he’s still trying to get used to.
“The weather,” Fernandez said with a laugh, explaining that a December back home is similar to a summer here. “It’s hard for me. … I always wear a hoodie and jacket.”
Desgrippes said he’s excited to face Fernandez in Wednesday’s district championship showdown of talented exchange students.
“It’s kind of interesting that both exchange students are playing against (each other) in the final,” Desgrippes said. “… It will be an interesting game. I’m excited.”