Sportsmanship Spotlight: Sebastian Bielen and Jack Kennedy
When Long Island natives Sebastian Bielen, 12, and Jack Kennedy, 12, faced off in the Boys’ 12s singles semifinal round at the 2021 Easter Bowl this past March, they both knew exactly what to expect. After all, the pair—two of the top-ranked juniors in the country—first played each other at a competition in Armonk, N.Y. when they were just seven years old. Since then, they’ve seen each other on the opposite side of the court so many times that neither can recall the exact number. “I’ve lost track,” says Kennedy (pictured above, left, with Bielen). “But if you count singles and doubles, it’s probably over 20 times.”
Indeed, after their semifinal match at the Easter Bowl—which Bielen won in two close sets, 6-4, 6-4—Bielen’s mom posted a photo of the two hugging at the net with the caption: “I lost count how many times these guys faced each other. Incredible rivalry since over four years...let’s keep pushing each other and make each other better.”
Kennedy replied in the comments, “I have so much respect for Sebastian and I have a great time playing against him win or lose because I get better by playing him.”
Bielen would go on to capture the singles title at the prestigious event, while Kennedy claimed both the Bronze Ball (third place) in singles, as well as the Boys’ 12s doubles title, with partner Trenton Kanchanakomtorn, of USTA Missouri Valley. Unsurprisingly, en route to claiming that title, the unseeded team faced Bielen (and his partner Carel Ngounoue) in the second round.
“Jack is one of the top players in the nation, so I know I have to be really focused,” Bielen says of their frequent contests. “Since we know each other so well, we raise the bar every time [we play], and our matches are very competitive. He brings an incredible variety of shots that can be very difficult to read. He has amazing hands and drop shots me all the time.”
Kennedy is equally complimentary of Bielen’s game and in agreement that they both raise their standard of play against each other.
- Bielen (left) and Kennedy over the years.
“Sebastian is very smart and consistent,” Kennedy says. “[Competing against him], I realize that I can raise my level even more. He also pushes me to be smarter on court. I always feel good [after our matches] because I know that I just got better from playing a high-level player.”
Also at a high level during their matches: Sportsmanship between the pair. Kennedy notes that Bielen is always quick to praise a strong point of Kennedy’s during the match and will have nice things to say at the net after their battle is over as well. Bielen, too, appreciates Kennedy’s professional on-court attitude and demeanor.
“Jack treats everyone with respect,” Bielen says. “I have never seen him changing the score or using bathroom breaks or other situations to throw the opponent off. He competes fairly and treats both victory and defeat with dignity.”
Even though they are perpetual opponents, the pair have developed a close friendship over the last five years. They have played doubles together since they were eight years old and just in the last month have lifted championship trophies at the Empire Cup and L3 Nationals. Playing doubles, notes Bielen, helps to alleviate any hard feelings after a tough singles fight.
“It is for sure difficult [to face a good friend in singles],” he says. “But usually tournaments include both singles and doubles events, and since we are doubles partners, we can’t really be upset with each other.”
In fact, this dynamic played out recently at L3 Nationals. Bielen and Kennedy competed against each other in a tight third-place singles match that reached a second-set tiebreak, with Bielen ultimately claiming victory. Just an hour later, they were again on court together—on the same side of the net—to contest the doubles final. Neither, though, would have it any other way.
“I like that we can learn from each other when we play doubles,” Kennedy says. “We have very good chemistry [on the court]. I trust that he is going to step up in the big moments, and [I know] we will figure out a way to win together.”
Ultimately, both are happy that they have been able to forge a lasting bond out of the sport.
“I hope we will continue to push each other to become better players,” Bielen says. “And that we will continue to be friends for many years to come.”
Photos courtesy Bryan Kennedy and Anna Bielen-Zarska.
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