Luke Graham.

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Luke Graham.

Luke Graham: A legitimate contender

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Luke Graham

Luke Graham's column appears periodically in the Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4229 or lgraham@SteamboatToday.com.

Find more columns by Luke here.

This time last year, Keegan Burger’s emotions on the tennis court were like one of those cans of fake snakes, just waiting to explode.

Unopened, not much happened and Burger usually would win.

But when the top came open, everything — the racquet throws, the tantrums and the losses — would pour out.

But Burger, who moved into the No. 1 singles slot this year after Jamey Swiggart suffered a season-ending injury, appears to have gotten past his emotions on the court and looks like a legitimate contender for a medal at state.

Friday served as the biggest evidence.

Burger beat Denver East’s Jake Malman in the semifinals of the Western Slope Open, 4-6, 6-2, 14-13.

The win validated Burger’s ability and showed that playing in premium summer tournaments across the region had improved his game.

But the win was more about the mental aspect than anything.

Burger had never beat Malman, in-season or out.

Last year at the same tournament, against Malman, Burger had a meltdown leading to a loss. That day, Burger won the first set, 6-0, and was up, 5-0, in the second before his emotions doomed him.

He let close calls bother him. He let a couple of lost points lead to lost games. The only good thing about watching Burger play was that people always could tell how he was doing. At the beginning of that match, he looked even-keeled and was smiling. By the time Malman had won the second set, Burger’s head was down and his shoulders were slumped.

At the conclusion of the match, coach John Aragon sat Burger down and told him he had all the ability to win a state title.

But his mental game would never allow him to do it.

Friday was set up for Burger to hop on his emotional rollercoaster again.

Malman had won the first set, 6-4, before Burger bounced back with a 6-2 win in the second set.

In the third, a 10-point tiebreaker, Burger and Malman battled. The match was tied at 7 and 12, before Burger nudged out the final two points.

The third set wasn’t without controversy. Malman questioned several calls and had set up Burger for an emotional meltdown. Malman wouldn’t give the ball back to Burger at the end of one point and refused to shake hands at the end.

Those were the type of things that, last year, would have ruined a match for him.

It was a striking turn for a player with all the physical abilities to do well this season.

Burger has a lot of added pressure on him this season, with the loss of Swiggart and an inexperienced, young team. But he’s stepped up and tried to work on that mental game.

It’s been a resounding turnaround.

Although most people thought Steamboat’s best chance for a state title at No. 1 singles disappeared with Swiggart’s injury, that’s not the case.

With a new and improved mental game, Burger’s got more than a chance.

Assuming he can keep the snakes in the can, Burger doesn’t just have a chance. Friday’s performance turned Burger into a favorite.

— To reach Luke Graham, call 871-4229 or e-mail lgraham@steamboatpilot.com

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