Michael Swank. Rodolfo Gauto Mariotti.
In name alone, the two Free State High tennis players are as different as wood and composite rackets.
But such a depiction could not be further from the truth.
In actuality, the top Firebirds on this year’s team share more than just a passion for tennis. Quite a lot more.
The bond between Swank, a 17-year-old lifelong Lawrence resident, and Gauto Mariotti, the only 18-year-old Paraguayan native roaming the halls of FSHS, quickly has become the kind that exists between siblings.
A more accurate description paints them as cousins who live close to each other and enjoy spending time together without getting tired of the company. How else could one explain the daily routine of these two individual state-championship hopefuls, tossed together as roommates, teammates and, in a sense, family?
After spending his first semester in the U.S. as a student at Lawrence High, Gauto Mariotti moved in with the Swanks for the second semester to further push himself as a tennis player.
Amid heated battles of FIFA 2009 soccer on PlayStation, family meals, chores and homework typical of most high school students, the two spend the rest of their time playing tennis.
Rarely do they keep score, tally wins and losses or worry about who’s the better player. Instead, they deem each day a success or failure based on one fact — did they get better?
“We don’t really make a big deal about it,” Swank said, when asked who was the better player. “To tell you the truth, playing sets against each other is really hard on us. We don’t really like it. We’re both good and we’re both good in our different areas.”
Today, at the Class 6A regional tennis tournament in Olathe, the two Firebirds are likely to be the top two seeds and therefore will be on a collision course destined to end in the regional championship match.
Although the two have talked about the ramifications — good and bad — of playing such a match, even going as far as to consider having one of them pull out of the tournament for fear of tipping the emotional breaking point, both insist the match will be played.
“We’re both real emotional, especially me,” Gauto Mariotti said. “When we play each other, in anything, we really want to win. But if we play each other at regionals, we’ll have to leave that in the car. We can’t take it home with us. It can be really hard to live with someone who’s your brother, your best friend and your competition.”
Most days, though, it’s just a lot of fun.
A normal day for Swank and Gauto Mariotti begins bright and early around 6 a.m. Swank is usually the first to wake up.
“I always know when (Gauto Mariotti) gets up because my shower gets cold because he steals all of my hot water,” Swank said.
It’s only fair, insists Gauto Mariotti. After all, he’s the senior.
Once at school the two are separated for much of the day. They share no classes, only occasionally rendezvous with friends in the halls and always meet back up for lunch, which typically includes a quick sandwich back at home base.
After a few more classes, the school day ends and the real work begins. For the rest of the afternoon, at least until dark, Swank and Gauto Mariotti work together to refine their tennis skills.
“Tennis was the main reason I came to America,” Gauto Mariotti said. “I was stuck in my country playing with the same guys and in the same tournaments every day. It was perfect actually because it gave me a chance to improve my tennis but also to practice my English. My family thinks it’s really important to explore other cultures and embrace what else is out there.”
Swank has taken to the role of cultural tutor nicely. In addition to introducing Gauto Mariotti to his circle of friends — who “have taken him in because he’s so easy-going” — and teaching him about American slang, music and pop culture, Swank also has bent over backwards to share some of his tennis wisdom with his new friend.
“I’ve played tennis a lot longer than he has,” Swank said. “So I guess I’ve just learned a few more tricks of the trade.”
Don’t confuse their camaraderie for congeniality. They’re not afraid to talk a little trash when they’re hitting around. Even then the verbal jabs are more about entertainment than vicious intent.
Occasionally, the abuse even comes in Spanish.
“I actually speak more Spanish than he does because I like practicing on him,” Swank said.
Added Gauto Mariotti: “And it’s the same for me; I like to practice my English around him.”
No matter what day it is or what’s happening around them, the two induce more smiles than sneers, more laughs than languish and genuinely seem to enjoy each other’s company on the tennis court.
“Ro, I can’t concentrate with this song,” Swank says after badly missing a shot upon hearing the beginning of a song that makes both players laugh.
It was not an excuse, and Gauto Mariotti never took it that way. Instead, he hustled over to the iPod to change the tune. Then it was back to an all-out assault of baseline groundstrokes.
It wasn’t always this way. Even before Gauto Mariotti moved in with the Swanks, the two tennis fanatics began forming a bond. But Swank admits to having doubts about sharing the spotlight as soon as the transfer became official.
“For me, it was a lot more difficult at first because I’ve been kind of the face of tennis in the town,” Swank said. “One of the LHS kids was bragging about this new kid they were going to get all summer and I didn’t know what to expect.”
“So, is he the real deal,” Swank asked. “I think so,” responded the LHS player. “Is he going to be able to give me a run,” Swank further prodded. Same response.
Swank was not alone in having trepidation about taking on a new opponent. The Asuncion, Paraguay, native also had questions about challenging the 6-foot-5 Free State phenom.
“I was scared, too,” Gauto Mariotti said. “I see this awesome tennis player, and he’s like two meters tall and I think, ‘Man, he must have a really nice serve.’”
If their first, and to this point only, true set against each other is any indication of what’s in store, a regional final matchup could be epic. In that one, Swank knocked off Gauto Mariotti in a tiebreaker, 7-6 (11-9).
There was very little on the line then. Today, if they do face each other in the title match at regionals, they’ll be playing for a championship and a better seed at state.
“We’ll try to behave,” Gauto Mariotti said. “We’ll respect the other guy and give a good show. I’m pretty sure it will be pretty close.”