Freshman Ben Donovan was leading UCLA's Clay Thompson in the first round of the NCAA Tournament before the match was called. | Photo courtesy of Cal Poly Athletics

Jefferson P. Nolan
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Ben Donovan was a sophomore in high school when he was knocked flat onto the bathroom floor. The ceiling had caved in on him.

Donovan was at a tennis academy on the outskirts of San Antonio, Texas — 700 miles away from his home and his parents in Memphis, Tennessee.

And though Donovan was 13 when he moved away from home, he remembers the shards of thick plaster raining down on him. He had moved to improve his game, but as he lay on the bathroom floor, he realized something needed to change.

Now a freshman at Cal Poly, Donovan has made a substantial mark on the Mustangs’ tennis team and has played an imperative role in its success this season. As last week’s Big West Player of the Week honoree, Donovan has competed as the Mustang’s top player in all five of Cal Poly’s conference matches.

But at first glance, you would never guess it — the Virginia native seems too friendly to be a fierce competitor. But when Donovan steps between the lines, the transformation is shocking as his amiable smile vanishes.

His odyssey to Cal Poly began when his mom, Lisa, used her then-5-year-old son to practice for the recreation tennis league she competed in.

“She told me that she just wanted someone to hit with,” Donovan said. “That’s where it began. I eventually just took off.”

The Donovan family had no idea what they were in for.

After moving from Virginia to New Jersey when he was 3, Donovan and his family made the exodus to Germantown, Tenn., where his father had been relocated for his job.

But the suburbs of Memphis had one tragic flaw. There was practically no tennis to be found.

The Donovans had their son apply to a selective honors program to attend high school. He was accepted, but he begged his parents to let him move to a Texas tennis academy instead.

There, he would train and play tennis during the day. When night fell, he would take online classes to complete his high school education with his fellow boarders.

“He said to us, ‘Just give me a chance,” Lisa said. “So we did. So many times we wanted to bring him home. But we didn’t. We really didn’t want him to go.”

Donovan’s parents regularly threatened to bring  him home if he didn’t finish a lesson plan on time. She kept a journal during his time away, documenting the memories her son described and cataloging the time they spent apart.

‘Just give me a reason,’Lisa would say to Ben. “If he didn’t finish a lesson, I’d call him and tell him that we were coming to pick him up. We did that all through his freshman and sophomore year.”

But Donovan’s mom knew tennis was her son’s dream. She knew she had to let him go.

After the bathroom fiasco, Donovan was ready to make a move. The dilapidated Texas tennis academy hadn’t been renovated since the 1960s, and a new tennis school caught his eye. Then a junior in high school, Donovan, along with a few of his friends from Texas, made the move to Advantage Tennis Academy, a second tennis school in Irvine, Calif. It was in Southern California that he met Advantage’s Director of Player Development and former Cal Poly tennis player, Brandon Fallon.

The young tennis star flourished under Fallon’s guidance. The 5-foot-10 Donovan had never heard of Cal Poly until Fallon introduced him to his former doubles partner and current Cal Poly head coach Nick Carless.

“I didn’t know how he would do in college. This other guy,” Fallon said, gesturing to Donovan’s opponent when Cal Poly played UC Santa Barbara, “is 6-foot-4. But (Ben) has always been quick on the court and his backhand is completely natural. Ben is a fighter. He’s going to be there for the team. There’s no ego for him.”

Though Cal Poly wasn’t on Donovan’s radar, he needed to fill slots between his official tennis visits.

“As soon as I took my tour here, I knew this is where I wanted to go,” Donovan said. “It was by far my favorite.”

Donovan admits that turning professional has always been the goal at the end of his collegiate career, but he is living in the present. He’s never been on a team like Cal Poly’s.

“I was really into team sports, and to have that aspect back, it’s just such a unique thing,” he said. “You’re in your own separate battle with your opponents, but you feed so much off of playing court one or two. It’s hands-down the most fun I have had with tennis.”

In Cal Poly’s 4-3 victory over UC Santa Barbara last Saturday, the Mustangs clinched the No. 2 seed going into the Big West Conference Tournament, and Donovan and his teammates will face the Gauchos again (3-1, 8-13) or take on UC Riverside (0-5, 2-21) in the first round of the tournament Friday.

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