CHAMPAIGN — Max Braun couldn't be penciled in as a guaranteed IHSA boys' tennis state champion before the 2021 season began.
That had nothing to do with his ability. He won every set he played across 21 singles matches as a Centennial freshman en route to the Class 1A title — and News-Gazette All-Area Player of the Year honors.
Braun's future in the IHSA history book instead was dependent upon his willingness to be involved with the Chargers' program.
"I did not pressure him at all," Centennial coach Teri Scaggs said. "I know he used to hit with Alex (Amatyleon, her assistant coach) a little bit. Neither one of us expected him to come out."
See, Braun approaches tennis differently than any other local athlete.
He competes in United States Tennis Association tournaments against a wide variety of opponents. He lists his dream career as "professional tennis player."
Braun possesses a different outlook on tennis than anyone else his age in Champaign-Urbana.
Luckily for Scaggs and the Chargers, Braun decided to alter that outlook a bit and give high school tennis a try.
Now, he's the area's only ever singles state champion.
"It was a good decision," Braun said. "I met new people, and since there was no (in-person) school this year I basically wouldn’t have known anyone from the school (without tennis). And it was a fun team experience, too."
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The last part of that comment actually was the reason Braun walked away from sports like basketball and soccer in his younger years.
"I enjoyed soccer, but I quit because I didn’t like the team aspect, I guess. I could lose because it wasn’t my fault," Braun said. "Tennis, I have control over what goes on."
That began with Braun first picking up a racket at age 7. He was spurred on by his parents alongside older brother James, who teamed with Lino Jo as a Centennial junior to place sixth in the Class 1A state doubles draw while Max was rolling through the singles bracket.
The younger Braun initially trained under Gordon Kay, the tennis professional at Champaign's Lincolnshire Fields Country Club.
Braun remembers being able to exhibit "good feel" and "good touch" for his slices and drop shots early on. He also played with close friend Elliot Wasserman at this time.
Wasserman moved to Texas when Braun was 11 or 12 years old. These days, each boy has an individual page on the tennisrecruiting.net website. Braun is listed as a three-star prospect. Wasserman, who is a year younger than Braun, is touted as a four-star athlete.
"His mom was always looking for him to hit with somebody whenever," Scaggs said of Braun. "Just from seeing him in Atkins (Tennis Center) ... he had talent that everybody could see back then, because everybody was kind of amazed when they’d find out how old he was. They were amazed at what he was doing on the court. He was a very talented tennis player, and you don’t see that very often."
The only east central Illinois athletes Scaggs can compare Braun to are current Illini and Maroa-Forsyth product Lucas Horve and two-time N-G All-Area Player of the Year Sunny Singh, a former Charger.
"You just hope when the kids have that talent so early they can stick with it, to see what kind great things can come from being dedicated and devoted to a sport," Scaggs said. "But you always worry about burnout."
That's not been an issue for Braun. In fact, he's continually seeking more action on the tennis court.
He started competitive play at age 10 and experienced a breakthrough at a U10 tournament in the Chicago area.
"I didn’t do too well when I started out in tournaments," Braun said. "(In Chicago) I beat someone I’d lost to twice in a row really badly. I guess that gave me confidence."
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Braun was very familiar with a specific version of tennis — the individualized, independent version — by the time his freshman year at Centennial commenced.
With his brother already a two-year IHSA tennis player for the Chargers, though, the opportunity existed for the younger Braun to experience something new.
"The one thing we wanted to do was offer him a different look at tennis," Scaggs said. "Alex did try to talk to him and say, 'Tennis is a team sport.' So we went back to that idea of, 'You’re surrounded by your teammates and it’s little more fun than what you’re doing now.'
"We saw smiles on his face that maybe he didn’t have a chance to have because he was out there competing by himself."
For Braun, it was important to discover a balance between his play for Centennial and his outside aspirations.
"Mainly we talked about how many times I could go to practice," Braun said. "I only had to go to practice twice a week, so then once a week I could skip it, once a week I could bring someone in to play with — twice a week at the end of the season — and then the other two days we usually had matches."
Braun's impact on the Chargers was instant and powerful.
He helped them sweep their regular-season dual schedule, win Big 12 Conference and Class 1A sectional team championships and earn 1A's state runner-up trophy, the first state team award in boys' program history.
"All I can say is that our entire season with him and what he did, it was incredible," Scaggs said.
And, of course, there also was that historic state singles victory.
"It’s awesome that I could get a state title as a freshman," Braun said. "I had to decide whether or not I wanted to play, first of all, and then COVID and everything — yeah, it was a pretty special season."
Let's take a moment to rewind, though.
What did Braun mean when he said "I could bring someone in to play with?"
Exactly what it sounds like. The high school newcomer would have college athletes and other more experienced players stop by Centennial's Lindsay Courts, or occasionally an off-site location, to help him hone his skills in a way he couldn't achieve in IHSA matches.
Through a connection with Illinois men's tennis coach Brad Dancer, Braun has hit with such individuals as recent Illini senior Noe Khlif, former Kenyon College player Austin Diehl, current Association of Tennis Professionals player relations coordinator Kevin Huang and former Illinois athlete Charly Crawmer.
"Mainly (I'm) just working on things, implementing what I want to do in matches," Braun said. "It's really convenient. I can talk to Brad. He's there when I need help."
Braun met Dancer at age 8 and attended three years worth of Illini tennis summer camps afterward. Braun figures "I don't really think I could" continue playing primarily out of Champaign without Dancer and his connections.
"It'd be a lot harder to, because I wouldn't really be taking lessons from anybody, either," Braun said. "I'd probably be going to Chicago."
Scaggs is quick to note that Braun wasn't segmented off by himself during the Chargers' workouts. Braun's time spent with those non-team individuals was structured alongside his high school efforts.
"I've always told the boys, 'If there's talent here that we need to bring in other people to push you, we will do that,'" Scaggs said. "We didn't want his game to regress because he was playing high school tennis."
Braun presently is focused on USTA tournaments this month and next, including a four-day event in Minneapolis that begins Thursday. He also expects to compete in another tournament at Kalamazoo, Mich., in which college coaches are permitted more access to prospects.
"I haven't really thought about colleges yet, but I guess (Illinois) would be cool because I know Brad," Braun said. "(Tennis is) really important, because it's something I do a lot. Without it, I don't really know what I'd do with my time."