Tracey Garner wanted a hockey player.
Instead, the mother of former Eagle High School standout Kyle Garner ended up with the one of the best tennis prospects Idaho has ever seen.
Garner, a 6-foot-2 left-hander, has placed at numerous national high-profile tournaments, including the New Balance High School Nationals. He is a former top-50 national recruit and a Division I signee at the Air Force Academy, who just completed a perfect 71-0 high school career with a third state title.
“There have been some good players, but he just stands out because he’s competing on a national level, which is exciting for Idaho and junior tennis,” said former Boise State tennis star Garrett Patton, a top-50 national recruit himself who is now a volunteer assistant coach at the University of Michigan. “He’s showing the rest of the kids in Idaho that you can go out and you can compete at the highest levels in the country, which is always exciting for kids who want to go play Division I.”
But it was only natural for Tracey Garner to want him in pads and skates on the ice rather than shorts and tennis shoes on the hard, grass and clay courts.
She’s from Edmonton, Canada, where Wayne Gretzky hoisted up four Stanley Cups with the Oilers in the 1980s. Her cousin Frank Banham set scoring records for the Saskatoon Blade in the WHL with 152 points during the 1995-96 season before playing in the NHL for the Anaheim Ducks and Phoenix Coyotes in the early 2000s.
While Tracey never got to play hockey herself, she was put in a headlock by Cammi Granato, who was the captain of the gold-medal winning 1998 U.S. women’s hockey team and the first woman ever to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
So when Kyle was 6, she signed him and his younger brother Shane up for junior hockey at Idaho Ice World in the hopes that they would love it too. And after only a handful of lessons, it became abundantly clear that wasn’t going to be the case.
“They would take the skates off and they would be gone,” Tracey said. “I would still be there watching kids play in games, and at one point, I looked around and was like, ‘OK, this isn’t working. I don’t think I’m going to get a hockey player.’”
Kyle didn’t immediately trade in a hockey stick for a tennis racquet, though. He left that to Shane and focused on basketball. That is until a chance encounter with an all-time great Boise State tennis player years later.
When Kyle was around 10, he and his family arrived early for the annual Boise State football Spring Game. With a little time to kill, they wandered over to the nearby Appleton Tennis Center, where the Boise State men’s team was locked in a back-and-forth battle with Mountain West rival Fresno State. They ended up missing the Spring Game entirely to see former Mountain West Player of the Year Andy Bettles, who is now coaching the No. 6 women’s tennis player in the world, Elina Svitolina, clinch a 4-3 win for the Broncos.
“I just remember how crazy the crowd was going,” Kyle said. “And that’s when I was like, ‘OK, I want to play college tennis. This is where it’s at.’”
However, the boyhood dream seemed like just that early on. The wins were hard to come by. He couldn’t even get one over on Shane. It wasn’t until the Barbara Chandler Tournament in Eagle when Kyle was 11, that everything unexpectedly changed.
Kyle needed someone to warm up with. So Tracey, randomly and unbeknownst to her, went up to DJ Parker, a multiple-time state champion at Boise High who was on break from playing at Graceland University in Iowa, and asked if he would hit with him. Parker happily agreed.
Kyle’s first-round opponent that day was the same one who had run him off the court just a year prior.
“We were thinking he was going to lose to him again,” Tracey said.
Kyle not only won that match, but the entire tournament. He’s gone undefeated in Idaho ever since.
“DJ just believed in him, and if somebody believes in Kyle, he will do whatever he can for them,” Tracey said.
And it was DJ’s father who told his family to get Kyle into national tournaments.
One of the first ones they ever went to was at a sectional in Denver later that year. Tracey and Kyle drove to the tournament with another local family.
“They told me, ‘Kyle’s going to be out early on in the draw, and we’re going to want to stay because our son is probably going to play longer. So you may have to pay for a couple extra hotel days to stay,’” Tracey said.
Kyle ended up winning the consolation title. So they had to take a flight home.
“Everyone was like, ‘Who is this kid from Idaho?,’” Kyle said while laughing.
The next year, he became the first person from Idaho to win that same tournament. And with that win, a star was born – at 12.
“In tennis, a lot of losses are inevitable, so it’s more about just handling those and I think he did a great job of seeing how competitive that world was,” said Patton, who Kyle grew up watching and emulating. “I think it was honestly the losses, that in the end, might have humbled him and made him hungrier to really take on tennis as his path for the next few years.”
And that’s exactly what happened
Kyle was already a five-star and a top-50 national recruit before he ever set foot inside Eagle High School. A lot of that had to do with his performance when he was 14 at the USTA Intersectionals in Auburn, Alabama. The team event features the top-4 players from each region of the country playing against each other. Kyle was the last one picked from the intermountain region, which includes Utah, Nevada, Colorado, Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. But by the time the tournament started, he had moved up to the No. 2 singles player and went on a 5-game winning streak while playing on clay for the first time.
“We didn’t know you needed special shoes for clay,” Tracey said while laughing.
When all was said and done, Kyle was ranked 43rd in the country among junior tennis players by tennisrecruiting.net.
“It’s kind of weird going in freshman year with everyone pretty much gunning for you. You would think it would be the opposite,” Kyle said. “But I felt like I handled the pressure well. I (had) a great season.”
Kyle led the Eagle boys team to the first state title in program history by capturing the 5A boys singles title himself. He was even more dominant the following year. Not even pneumonia could stop him.
He went straight to the ER following a first-round win over this year’s 5A boys singles state champion, Centennial’s Ryan Olson, after he was having trouble breathing. In-between points, Kyle had to down Gatorades just to keep him on his feet. Three hours before the finals, he was still getting IVs.
“The doctors said, ‘No way you should play,’” Kyle said.
But his parents signed him out just in time for his championship match against Centennial’s Tyler Dalos. He dropped the first set 3-6. It was only the second time he had ever dropped a set in a high school match.
“Honestly, I was so out of it, that I was just like, ‘I’m going to play one point at a time. I got three seniors over there who are depending on me. That match would determine who would win state. I could care less about how I do in this match, but I want to get this win, so our team and our seniors can get a state championship.’”
He did just that by winning the next two sets 6-2, 6-4 for the seemingly impossible come-from-behind win.
However, he really didn’t get to enjoy it. Kyle went straight from the court to bed.
“It’s really just an extreme willpower and fight that just lives within him,” former Boise State assistant tennis coach Stefan Menichella said. “I think that’s kind of the core of who he is.”
But Kyle had plenty of other things to celebrate over the coming months.
A NEW ‘LEVEL’
He was the runner-up at the New Balance High School Nationals, where Nicole Gibbs, a former top-70 player in the world, personally asked to hit with him.
He went to Kalamazoo, Michigan to play in the USTA Boys 18 and 16 National Championships. The very same place where 34th-ranked John Isner and Hall of Famer Andy Roddick once played.
His recruitment started that summer too. On the first day, he received approximately 30 calls, all from different college coaches. They included 15 Division I schools such as Baylor, Michigan State, Notre Dame, Yale, Boise State and Air Force, which he ultimately decided on that fall.
Finally, Kyle was one of 17 players that summer to be invited to Flushing Meadows in New York City for the US Open. The USTA selected only a handful of players from each section of the country to help get more kids involved in tennis. There, Kyle met the likes of Bob and Mike Bryan – the most accomplished team in doubles history with 16 grand slam titles – and arguably the greatest tennis player of all time in 23-time grand slam champion Serena Williams.
“It was pretty cool, but I also felt like I kind of belonged there too in a way just because at that point I had got the opportunity to train with quite a few pros down in California and Florida,” Kyle said. “So I was kind of used to being around these people. I was starting to believe that I could play with them and kind of be on the same level as them.”
Kyle proved just that after the coronavirus robbed him of a junior high school season.
He flew out to California to train with Menichella at his Santa Barbara Tennis Academy.
Menichella, who played on the ITF Men’s World Tennis Tour, met Kyle while he was an assistant under former Boise State men’s tennis coach Greg Patton. Kyle attended a camp Patton put on for all the best players in Idaho.
“Kyle was by far the biggest standout of that group,” Menichella said.
In California, Menichella got Kyle on the Intercollegiate Tennis Association Circuit. He routinely competed in draws of 64, mostly made up of college guys. Kyle made a semifinal and championship appearance during his time there.
“When he was back in Idaho, the tennis part of it wasn’t really conducive to playing Division I and all of the things that go with that,” Menichella said. “So I’m really glad that he was able to come out here and really live that to an extreme extent because we were going all day, from dawn to dusk. It inspired him a little bit and gave him some direction to apply it when he did go home.”
But Kyle wasn’t home for long.
During this past winter break, he went to Boca Raton, Florida and stayed with friend Sarah Hammer, who just so happens to be the No. 1 girl in the nation for 18s, and a South Carolina signee. Kyle also got tips from Michael Joyce, the coach of five-time grand slam champion Maria Sharapova, and played with Jessica Pegula, who is currently ranked 29th in the world and reached the quarterfinals of the Australian Open in January.
“I was having close sets with her. So it was cool to see I was right at that level,” Kyle said.
A “level” none could match in his last go-around with the Mustangs.
END IS JUST A NEW BEGINNING
Rather than go for the Idaho state three-peat in singles, Kyle decided to team up with Shane, who had renewed his own passion for tennis after stepping away for years. The duo not only went undefeated, but didn’t drop so much as a single set in the process on their way to a 2021 state championship.
Fittingly, Kyle was the one that scored the final point too. He smashed an overhead shot down the left baseline, dropped his racquet before Shane jumped into his arms to celebrate the 7-5, 6-4 straight set win over Madison’s Joe Pigott and Ethan Andreasen to cap a perfect 71-0 high school career.
“Looking back on my high school career, I don’t think I could have scripted a better ending,” Kyle said. “The feeling of going out on top with my brother by my side is something I can’t put into words. Putting that final overhead away really was the end of a special era and I can’t wait to start a new one next year at the college level.”
In tennis, not hockey.
“He really has let me down,” Tracey said while laughing. “I have to tease him to keep things in perspective. But he is an amazing kid. I don’t know how he’s mine. I’ve learned a lot about tennis. I have a new love and a new sport.”
— Brandon Walton