Tennis community, family mourn death of popular Cleveland High, UO athlete

by: COURTESY OF ALEX ROVELLO - Alex Rovello counsels freshman and 2013 doubles partner Daan Maasland (left) of the Netherlands.Berkeley Park is just a few blocks’ downhill stroll from the Eastmoreland home of Jim and Geri Rovello.

The walk is going to be a lot longer now. And so different.

Their only child, Alex Rovello, spent countless hours at Berkeley Park, from age 2 on, hitting tennis balls with his father or friends.

It was there that Alex began to hone the skills that would make him the first four-time state champion in Oregon high school history and the No. 1 player at the University of Oregon.

This week, the courts at Berkeley Park have become — and Alex’s friends would say deserve to forever be — a shrine to the most decorated athlete in Cleveland High and state prep tennis history. Neighbors are paying tribute to an extraordinarily popular young man who won friends of all ages even more easily than he dispatched of his foes on the tennis court.

Alex Rovello, who had just finished his junior season at Oregon, died last Saturday afternoon. He drowned after leaping from a 60-foot cliff into Tamolitch Pool east of Blue River. He was 21.

Flowers, signs and balloons in Alex’s memory have popped up at Berkeley Park, placed there by those who knew and loved him, including former classmates at nearby Duniway Elementary School, where his mom, Geri, taught for many years, and Sellwood Middle School, and Cleveland.

“You were a true gentleman,” says one sign.

“A great light has gone from our lives,” says another.

“An inspiration to all who knew you,” says still another.

“We love you Alex” is inscribed on one large poster. “You’ll always be in our hearts.”

Friends have established the “Alex Rovello Memorial Berkeley Park Tennis Donation Fund” at Wells Fargo banks. Contributions will go toward renovating the two Berkeley public courts, where Cleveland’s boys and girls tennis teams still practice.

“I hope we can resurface the courts and put in new nets,” says Jim Rovello. “Maybe get some new benches, or even prune the trees that hang over the courts.”

The father pauses just for a moment and looks out the window of the family home.

“And maybe, when I drive by the park every day, I can look over there and smile,” he says. “Maybe I’ll even go there and hit a few balls with some kids.”

The Rovellos aren’t sure yet what they are going to do, without Alex.

“This is going to be with us for a long, long time,” Jim says of the accident that took his son’s life. “It’s a parent’s worst nightmare.”

Close-knit family

Jim and Geri have been married for some 35 years. Alex James Rovello was born on June 25, 1991.

“We waited a long time to have him,” Jim says. “We didn’t want to have children when we were younger, when we weren’t so ready to be good parents.”

Jim retired as a public school physical education teacher in 2007 (he still volunteers occasionally as a disc jockey/exercise dance guest instructor).

Geri retired as a second-grade teacher at Duniway in 2009.

Even while they were teaching full-time, they devoted many of their weekends and summers — and more — helping Alex get to and from tournaments, practices, etc., and watching him play as he rose in the Northwest and national rankings.

Retirement simply gave the proud mom and dad even more time to see their prodigy in action and, in the process, meet other people in the tennis world.

“His mother and him had a tremendous relationship,” Jim says, “and my goal was always to put every ounce of energy into him. It was great, too. We loved every minute of it.

“We’re going to miss him so much. I’m still in shock.”

Outpouring of support

On Tuesday, the Rovellos drove to Eugene to retrieve Alex’s car and other things. They made it back home at sunset and spent a little time with visitors.

Then Geri went to work on Alex’s obituary, with the help of some former teaching colleagues at Duniway.

Jim tried to somehow wind down enough to get a bit of the sleep that has been hard to come by since Saturday.

The outpouring of love and support in various forms — from close friends to people they don’t even know — “has been overwhelming,” Jim says, leaning back in a living room chair and letting out a tired sigh.

“In a good way,” he adds.

The annual high school state tennis tournaments are this weekend, and the Oregon School Activities Association will have mini-memorials in place at Portland Tennis Center and Tualatin Hills Tennis Center for people to bring cards, flowers and photos in honor of Alex.

A memorial service is set for 1 p.m. Saturday at St. Philip Neri Parish, 2408 S.E. 16th Ave., where the Rovellos attend church. It will be open to the public. A tent will help accommodate the expected overflow crowd. Friends are working to set up some form of telecast so that those who cannot find seating in the sanctuary will be able to watch the proceedings, as well.

People from across the United States and even from other countries are coming to the memorial. They range from next-door neighbors to Alex’s U of O athletic contemporaries to tennis players Alex met at youth tournaments. Players are coming from throughout the Northwest but also from much farther away, such as Matt Siow, a Californian now playing for Princeton.

The Ducks’ athletic department will be well-represented at the tribute for the journalism major with the bright smile and impactful personality.

“Alex loved the U of O,” Jim says. “And the team got better every year he was there. Next year, with Alex as a senior, they were shooting to make the NCAA tournament.”

Everybody’s friend

Rovello was undefeated in high school tennis, and the Cleveland High community has been filled with enormous grief since his death. Few associated with Cleveland would argue that Alex ranks as one of the most beloved students ever to walk the halls there, and that he was probably the most highly ranked athlete ever at the school from the day he showed up for freshman orientation.

“Everybody said to him, ‘You’re going to bring us state championships.’ He had that pressure from the get-go,” Jim recalls.

Alex came through, winning his four individual titles and leading the Warriors to the team championship as a senior in 2010 — the school’s first and only team state title in sports.

“It was amazing how he handled the pressure,” Jim says. “He played some really good kids every year in the state semifinals and finals — and it was Alex who had everything to lose.”

So, how would his dad like Alex to be remembered?

“Mostly for his character,” Jim says. “The tennis was great — he got a scholarship and got to meet a lot of people and go all over the country, and we’re proud of his accomplishments, obviously — but from Day One, Geri and I just wanted him to be a really good person.

“We’re really proud of the way he turned out.”

Alex was the antithesis of the stereotypical snobby, country club tennis whiz kid.

“He never had the cocky attitude,” his father says. “It didn’t matter if he was playing a kid from Jefferson or Roosevelt who had a very limited tennis background, Alex wouldn’t be a tennis brat.

“He respected his opponents, whoever they were. He was popular even with the kids he beat, simply because of his manners and how he acted.

“People really, really liked him.”

Details not important

Jim and Geri Rovello didn’t spend a lot of time in Eugene on Tuesday; they weren’t there to dwell on the tragedy. They did get to meet the parents of Alex’s UO roommate — Alex was living this year with Ducks football player Eric Dungy, whose mom and dad, former NFL coach Tony Dungy, flew in from Tampa, Fla., to support their grieving son.

Jim Rovello says he and Geri haven’t pried for a lot of details about Saturday’s expedition to the cliff that you come to after a gorgeous hike along the McKenzie River.

“There are parts I really don’t know about ... but it’s not going to bring Alex back,” he says.

Alex “wasn’t a risk-taker,” his dad says. “He was there with friends. He jumped in. It was something a lot of people do.

“I think he hit the water the wrong way. From the reports, he hit his head and chest, and it knocked him out.

“It was an accident. There was no alcohol or anything like that involved.”

Alex always took great care of his body — he was perhaps slightly charitably listed by the Ducks as 5-9, 150 pounds — and he was all lean muscle, from lots of conditioning as well as the tennis. Over the years, Alex tended to eschew other sports or activities, so as to not risk an injury, even a sprained ankle, that could affect his tennis or keep him out of action.

“We had heard of kids doing things at High Rocks (on the Clackamas River) and so forth,” Jim says, “and we used to tell him when he was growing up, ‘Don’t ever jump over anything.’

“And he’d say, ‘I know, Dad. I know, Mom.’ But sometimes kids do things, and now he was 21.

“It was just an accident.”

Jim Rovello says those with Alex at Tamolitch Pool included Eric Dungy, and his girlfriend.

“Supposedly, four kids jumped ahead of him,” Jim says. “They were his good friends. He wanted to be part of the group.

“I know, from the reports, that he didn’t suffer. I’m just glad he didn’t.”

Beyond that, Jim says, he doesn’t know much, and doesn’t care to ask. He doesn’t want Alex’s friends to blame or torture themselves with what ifs.

“I don’t even want to know,” Jim says. “I don’t want to question anybody and have that on their conscience.

“It’s not going to bring Alex back.”

Parents’ worst nightmare

Last Saturday was a gorgeous day for Jim and Geri — weather-wise and in other ways — until they returned home that night.

“My wife and I had a great day at a friend’s house,” Jim says. “We get home and there’s a policeman here. I thought at first it was a friend of ours, but it wasn’t. He came up and asked, ‘Are you Alex Rovello’s parents?’

“My first thought was, what did he do? Because Alex didn’t get into trouble.

“Then I saw it — he was a police chaplain. He’d been sent here to tell us.”

He was there to tell the Rovellos the worst news imaginable.

“The first feeling,” Jim says, “is anger: Why Alex? He’s a good kid. Why did this happen to him?”

Every few minutes, Jim makes sure to mention that “this isn’t about me.” It’s the kind of thing Alex would always say.

Since Saturday night, you could probably name every emotion or feeling and the Rovellos have felt it ... except that, if you haven’t been in their position, there is no way to grasp what they are going through.

“I would love to have him back — I would do anything to have him back,” Jim says. “But he’s gone.

“Maybe he’s doing better things now.”

Twitter: @sbrandonsports

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