TWIN FALLS — Tennis is a glorified hobby to Matt Sato.
The outgoing Twin Falls High School senior picked up the sport when he was 11 years old, and he immediately liked it. But he never prioritized it. School always came first.
And yet, Sato became one of Idaho’s best high school tennis players without coasting on talent or preying on poor competition. When he was on the court, nothing stole his attention.
“He wasn’t that hard to motivate,” said Tiffany Molian, who coaches tennis at Canyon Ridge and gave lessons to Sato early in his career. “If he’s gonna do something, he’s gonna do something 100 percent.”
Sato deftly balanced tennis with a heavy school workload. His grades earned him an academic scholarship to Vanderbilt University. His tennis performance landed him the Times-News’ 2017 Male Tennis Player of the Year honor.
“I’m pretty competitive and I don’t like to lose, so I work pretty hard,” Sato said. “Being able to have success the past three years is really just the cherry on top for me.”
Sato reached the 4A state tennis tournament all four years of his career, and he finished this past season with a 25-2 record. But those accomplishments fall well shy of his academic accolades.
Sato said his high school GPA was a 4.0. He scored a 35 on his ACT (36 is the maximum score) and a 1560 on his SAT (1600 maximum).
A couple of summers ago, Sato’s father Mike traveled to Boise for a tennis tournament with his adult mixed team. Sato tagged along, and he made sure to bring his computer. Between his father’s games and sets, Sato completed assignments for his online classes.
Years before that, when Sato was in grade school, Mike watched his son attempt to solve a tricky math problem.
“It was just amazing to watch him,” Mike said. “He was so intent on getting this problem done. You don’t often see that in young kids.”
Mike, who introduced Sato to the sport, was struck by his son’s natural ability from the outset. So was Moilan. Sato showed off quick feet and quick hands, she said. He had good hand-eye coordination and moved smoothly around the court. He was a natural athlete.
The trait that stuck out most to Moilan, however, was not physical.
“As a kid he showed wanting to be very competitive, not just with the other kids, but with himself,” she said. “It can be a tough sport. Sometimes you don’t see improvement for a couple of months, and you get discouraged.”
Throughout high school, Sato carried a heavy academic workload, and his senior year might have been the toughest. On top of his classes, he was on the senior class council and the science quiz bowl team. In May, Sato and his quiz bowl team flew to Washington, D.C., for the National Science Bowl. Less than 24 hours after he got back to Twin Falls, he faced Canyon Ridge’s Landon Davidson in a singles match. Sato won 6-3, 6-3.
“I was concerned his tennis might suffer (this year),” Mike said. “Obviously, my concerns weren’t merited.”
Sato’s first loss this season came in April against Boise’s Eric Lim. He didn’t lose again until his final match of the season — in the 4A state boys singles championship match against Bishop Kelly’s Noah Austin.
Austin won 6-0, 6-0.
“The first set, I don’t know, I stepped on the court and got really nervous. The second set, I started playing really well, but he was rolling by then and just played amazing,” Sato said. “He’s obviously a really great player.
“I don’t get to see players like him very often.”
The loss reaffirmed Sato’s decision to focus on academics, but he never seriously considered playing tennis in college. To earn a college tennis scholarship, you need to be one of the top 200 players in the country, Moilan estimates. Even Austin would have a hard time cracking that list.
Besides, Sato earned the Cornelius Vanderbilt scholarship, which will cover his entire tuition. He loves tennis, and he’ll continue to play the sport, but he’s content to dedicate his attention to school, specifically civil engineering.
“I’ve always loved math and science, and engineering is definitely a field that combines math and science,” he said. “It’s just problem solving. That kind of stuff I’ve always enjoyed.”