URBANA — Alex Mestre walks barefoot along the hardwood floor at his family’s home in Urbana.
It’s a warm day in June, so the recent Urbana University High graduate is sporting navy blue shorts and dark gray T-shirt.
He waits for Edo Roth to show up, his good friend and doubles partner the last four years of his high school tennis career. The two who have made Uni High tennis a reputable name in the school.
In the area. In the state. The two seniors who are The News-Gazette’s All-Area Boys’ Tennis Players of the Year.
The former Massachusetts native — Mestre moved to Urbana when he was 10 years old — casually watches ESPN.
The newest New England Patriots signee, Tim Tebow, is getting dissected and overanalayzed on the screen. Mestre is eager, yet a tad uncertain, about the plans Bill Belichik has for the polarizing football player.
No visible scratches are apparent on Mestre.
No broken bones. No medical equipment is nearby.
While Roth swivels in an oversized brown chair and agonizes about who to include in the people he text messages most often, Mestre leans back.
The sun from the door leading out to the backyard shines through the living room.
He props his right foot on the chair, laughing at Roth’s indecisiveness before offering a few suggestions. Roth subtly tosses aside each one, much like he and Mestre did to area opponents the past four years.
A few minutes later, when Roth has finally settled on his choices, Mestre moves forward.
Using the two circular coasters on the table, his white-covered iPhone and this reporter’s thin black recorder, Mestre replays a mid-August night.
A night he vaguely remembers, but hardly forgets. For good reason. He nearly died.
Mestre had finished another two-a-day practice session with the Illineks soccer team.
Like many upcoming high school seniors, he was enjoying his final few days of summer before school started.
Going to visit his girlfriend, Mestre never made it to his ultimate destination.
The silver 2010 Toyota Camry he was driving didn’t survive intact past the Windsor-Neil intersection in Champaign. Mestre survived. Somehow.
His back bumper got clipped by another driver. With a green light staring directly in front of him, Mestre had his foot on the accelerator.
When the other car hit his bumper, his side airbag deployed. The safety mechanism knocked Mestre out cold.
“My car spun out 180 degrees, and unconsciously, I started to drive back down Windsor toward oncoming traffic,” Mestre said. “After a fourth of a mile, and some people thought I hit a max of 25-30 mph, (my car) jumped a curb and went into the swampy ditch on Windsor close to Neil.”
It was dark out. Shortly after 8 p.m.
A Good Samaritan happened on the scene shortly after witnessing the car crash.
“He thought I was dead,” Mestre said. “I was just laying there lifelessly. He wakes me up, and I thought, ‘Where am I? It’s pitch black, and there’s a guy next to me I don’t know.’”
The reaction was equally scary for Lori and Jose Mestre. Alex called his mom when he woke up in the car, trying to take in the scene enveloping him.
His parents arrived on the scene shortly after.
“My first reaction was I froze,” Lori Mestre said. “I couldn’t get him to be coherent about what was happening. I couldn’t understand what had happened and wasn’t sure what was going on.”
The flashing lights of several emergency vehicles on the scene made it sink in what their son had endured when they arrived.
“One of the policemen on the scene said he had never seen anything like it,” Jose Mestre said. “We were just glad he was alive.”
Mestre led the Uni High soccer team in assists during the 2011 season.
The Illineks had advanced to a Class 1A super-sectional game that fall and had their sights on state in 2012.
Those sights were realized in October. Uni High made it all the way to the 1A state championship game before losing to Alton Marquette.
But Mestre had to watch from the sidelines. All season long. With a neck brace on.
He had fractured the C7 vertebrae in his neck during the accident.
Mestre spent three days at Carle Hospital recovering from the accident.
Along with his severe neck injury, he had sustained a concussion and was having trouble keeping any food or liquids down.
He didn’t need surgery on his neck, but had to wear a neck brace for the next two months. A small inconvenience for a much greater reward. The ability to use his legs and hands. Plus a chance to cherish the upcoming tennis season he would have with Roth.
“I definitely could see a change in Alex,” Uni High coach David Bergandine said. “Part of it was going to be maturation anyway, but that event gave him a little bit more of a realization and recognition that it could be over at any time. It basically would have ended Edo’s season, too. Everyone was concerned about that as well.”
Mestre thinks often about the car crash. It’s hard not to.
“I was talking to one of my friends about the accident the other day, and my friend said, ‘Anything in the neck, you’re just asking for trouble,’ ” Mestre said. “I’m honestly so lucky that I did not have any serious repercussions. I recovered. I got back into tennis as quick as I could.”
With apprehension at first. Understandably so.
Roth felt the same way, too. For a brief period of time.
“I definitely realized it could have been so much worse,” Roth said. “I was happy that everything worked out well, but it was scary when I first found out. I didn’t really think about tennis at first. It became clear that he would be able to get better pretty soon, so I never really thought that he wouldn’t make it back.”
A breakthrough happened in early December.
Mestre had slowly worked his way back into tennis with minimal workouts for a few weeks before he entered the Keegan Bannon Memorial Tournament at the Atkins Tennis Center on the Illinois campus.
Mestre ended up winning the singles title at the United State Tennis Association event, beating two longtime foes he had never had much success against in the semifinals and finals.
“It was actually the biggest tournament in my life because of how much it meant to me,” Mestre said. “It was honestly surreal because it felt like a dream.”
The dream continued this spring.
Not only were Mestre and Roth aiming for their fourth straight trip to the state meet, they were the marquee names of the first Uni High tennis team.
“Being part of the first tennis season at Uni and being able to lead the team with Edo, that was the most fulfilling thing for me,” Mestre said. “I’m so glad I got to be a part of that and lay the foundation for something that will live on. It will be bigger than two good finishes at state.”
Roth and Mestre met little resistance during the regular season.
The duo lost once during the regular season and cruised to a fourth straight sectional title.
They finished their senior season 24-3, with two losses coming at the state meet.
After they advanced to the quarterfinals for the second straight season.
The pair didn’t come home with a state championship. And they missed out on getting featured in a state highlight DVD. Those who make the semifinals, finals, third-place match and fifth-place match are spotlighted. Mestre and Roth found this out during a rain-delayed practice this spring.
“It would have been nice to improve, but we had a good run,” Roth said. “We wanted to get in the video, though.”
Both Mestre and Roth share mischievous grins after this last statement. They know they’ve had an incredible four-year run of tennis success.
“We were like one unit,” Mestre said. “We wanted to win every single match. I’m pretty content with how it turned out.”
Mestre is headed to Indiana this fall. The Kelley School of Business awaits.
For Roth, it’s even farther east.
Columbia University in New York. To study computer science.
Both will play club tennis in college. Mestre is considering the possibility of trying to walk on with the Hoosiers. Both will keep an eye focused on Uni next spring. It should consist of the second season for the Illineks tennis team. Future players out there right now who will try to eclipse the standard Mestre and Roth have established.
“People had known about us, but it was nice to see other guys getting wins too this year,” Roth said. “I’m really excited for the future and to see what they do as a team.”
Bergandine doesn’t anticipate having a pair of players like Mestre and Roth who broke onto the area scene immediately as freshmen and continued to progress all the way through their senior years anytime soon.
“I’ve come to recognize even throughout the state and in Champaign-Urbana, it’s unusual to get two guys who are of the same age, same skill level who play together for so long,” Bergandine said. “You just don’t find a pair of guys who play from year to year like that and have the success they did. All of that will be greatly missed.”
Bergandine is mainly talking about the tennis skills both Mestre and Roth had. The same sentiment is expressed by veteran Uni High athletic director Sally Walker about the people the duo have become.
“I’ll miss them a lot,” Walker said. “They’re both just good guys and good leaders. It’s always been my hope that people would see, much like they do at places like Stanford, Duke and in the Ivy League, that you can be a great student and a great athlete at Uni. By no means do I propose we have the greatest athletes and greatest students out there, but it’s possible to compete on the athletic field and be excellent students. These guys have proven that.”
Getting to know ... Alex Mestre
A few of my favorite things ... Jared Hiltzik (college athlete), Will Ferrell (entertainer), history (class), “The Dark Knight Rises” (movie), J. Crew (store), Jimmy John’s (fast-food joint), Porsche (car)
Pet peeve: Edo double-faulting
First job: Working at Atkins Tennis Center
You’re always texting: Madie Baillon and Peter Kim
Three items on your bucket list: Go to all four tennis grand slams, go skydiving and visit Machu Picchu
College plans: Attend Indiana University
Getting to know ... Edo Roth
A few of my favorite things ... Rafael Nadal (pro athlete), Jake and Amir (entertainer), math (class), “Catch Me if You Can” (movie), Tennis Warehouse (store), Steak ‘n Shake (fast-food joint), my Camry (car)
Pet peeve: When Alex’s forehand hits the back fence
First job: Working at the U of I in the bioengineering building
You’re always texting: Freddie Stavins and Ryan Kuck
Three items on your bucket list: Learn a foreign language, go to all four tennis Grand Slams and meet Beyonce
College plans: Attend Columbia (N.Y.) University
All-Area Honorable Mention
NAME SCHOOL YR.
Austin Aten Champaign Central Jr.
Jesse Dankle St. Thomas More Jr.
Hayden Dodds Champaign Central So.
Tyler Ellis Danville Sr.
Patrick Kearney Centennial Jr.
Peter Kim Centennial Sr.
Gabe Mitchell Champaign Central Sr.
Logan Nelson Danville Jr.
Daniel O’Brien Centennial Sr.
Andrew Scaggs Centennial Jr.
Sunny Singh Centennial So.
Nikhil Thope Champaign Central Fr.
Travis Tressler St. Thomas More Jr.
Chris Yim Champaign Central Sr.
Michael Yoo Champaign Central Jr.
Max Zheng Centennial So.