LAKEWOOD RANCH — Perfection motivates Ashley Bongart.
The Lakewood Ranch High School junior expects to perform perfectly every time she steps onto the court, regardless of whether she has an audience.
Bongart won all of her high school No. 1 singles tennis matches this season with relative ease. The four-time singles district champion and doubles state champion’s focus on the court is unprecedented.
Bongart thrives during those hard-fought matches, when she is the center of attention and her grit and determination is tested.
“I think it motivates me more to do better,” Bongart says. “In your mind, you have to be perfect. I would rather be in front of a crowd than have nobody watching because then you tend to lose focus.”
All eyes will be on Bongart next week when she competes in her first professional tennis tournament — the 7th annual Sarasota Open, at Longboat Key Club & Resort’s Tennis Gardens Stadium.
The event, which is part of the Association Tennis Professionals Tour, has drawn more than 30,000 spectators in the past.
The Sarasota Open begins April 12 with the men’s qualifying rounds. The women’s draw, in which Bongart will participate, begins April 17.
“I’m pretty sure when I (first) get there I’ll be nervous, but (luckily) I don’t get nervous before matches,” Bongart says.
Bongart is the only current East County player to earn a spot in this year’s Sarasota Open. Former Out-of-Door Academy and University of Florida standout Sekou Bangor Jr. will compete in the men’s draw.
Bongart applied for a spot in the Sarasota Open earlier this year. After the world’s No. 1 junior tennis player could not play, Bongart was given the tournament’s final spot.
“I was a little shocked,” Bongart admits. “I was excited, but it was a little nerve-wracking. It’s definitely an honor with this being my first professional tournament — it means a lot.”
Bongart’s coach, Chris Marquez, said he knew Bongart had a good chance of making it into the tournament.
“It’s a difficult tournament to get into,” Marquez says. “You have to have a certain level of credentials to get in. With her being (one of) the best (junior) players and locally grown, it’s good for the tournament, too.
“Obviously the (biggest benefit) is the experience she’ll get playing high-level competition and new faces,” Marquez says. “She’s already established herself as one of the best players in Florida.”
Bongart looks forward to competing in her first professional tennis tournament in front of family and friends. The experience will be unlike any other for Bongart, who will get a firsthand glimpse at what goes in to being a professional tennis player.
Bongart will play on a stadium court surrounded by spectators. Each match will have a chair umpire and ball kids — both of which Bongart has never played with before.
“The whole setting is exciting, and to be able to be on a professional stage is a good experience for her,” Marquez says.
Bongart closed out her high school season at the Class 3A-District 10 tournament April 1 and April 2, at Treasure Bay Tennis Club, hoping to defend her No. 1 singles district crown.
As the district champion, Bongart would automatically earn a berth in the Class 3A individual singles state championship April 16 through April 18.
But, rather than trying to win her first individual singles state championship, Bongart elected to compete in the Sarasota Open.
“Next year’s going to have to be the year,” Bongart says of winning a singles state championship. “It won’t be as stressful then.”
In the weeks leading up to the Sarasota Open, Bongart will spend every day on the court, either at the Lakewood Ranch Athletic Center or Lakewood Ranch High, improving her game. Bongart’s main areas of focus will be on general fitness, conditioning and drills in the sand court — all of which she hopes will help her in the Sarasota Open and throughout her summer tournament circuit.
Bongart hopes to use the Sarasota Open as a learning tool for the future. But, she would at least like to make it to the second round of competition.
“Winning a round would be great,” Bongart says. “I know there will be a lot of good girls, though, so it’ll be hard for me to win a round. I’m just looking forward to the experience of being in that kind of setting.”
Marquez says Bongart can win matches as long as she’s focused.
“Level-wise she’s middle of the pack,” he says. “There won’t be such a thing as an easy match.”
Following the Sarasota Open, Bongart will begin her spring and summer tournament schedule, which includes college circuits, U.S. Tennis Association, International Tennis Federation and professional tennis tournaments, and nationals.
“The main thing is just trying to develop her game and get her ready for college,” Marquez says. “College coaches know what she’s capable of on the junior, national and state level. Now it’s about exposing her to a higher level of play.”
Contact Jen Blanco at [email protected].