Nate Gambino always thought he would play tennis again.
But would he be able to play at the high level that he reached before undergoing surgery three times?
That's the question the Penn State student and Dallastown High School graduate asked himself going into this year's York City-County Tennis Tournament. The tournament would be Gambino's first taste of competition in more than a year.
With every serve and groundstroke that he crushed on Thursday evening at Farquhar Park, Gambino showed he's the same player who racked up a sparkling 42-1 record at No. 2 singles for Penn State York.
Gambino entered City-County unseeded, but he's won both of his Men's Singles matches so far including a 6-3, 6-4 victory over No. 4-seeded Craig Hildebrand on Thursday.
"I'm happy to be in the same shape I was before surgery," he said.
Gambino, who had his colon removed, underwent surgery in May and December of 2011 and March of this year.
"They tried to control my condition with medicine, but I eventually needed surgery. It feels great to be healthy for the first time since I was 10."
Gambino scored a victory before he ever stepped on a court by coming back from the surgeries.
Being able to execute his shots the way he used to made the return even sweeter.
Hildebrand broke Gambino's serve in the third game of the first set, but Gambino held his serve, which has been clocked at 123 miles per hour, the rest of the match.
He unleashed 10 service winners in the second set.
"The serve is one of the biggest parts of my game," said Gambino who's majoring in kinesiology, with a minor in math, at Penn State's main campus.
"I could have served a little better on my first serve, but my second serve was definitely on."
Gambino's triumph earned him a semifinal meeting with 10-time singles champion and No. 1-seeded Craig Diehl.
"I never played him before, but I've watched him," Gambino said. "I'm excited about the match."
Hildebrand, a graduate of Central High School and Penn State, planned to enter City-County last year, but he contracted Lyme Disease and had to miss the tournament.
Healthy this year, he signed up for City-County with the goal of playing the best he could every time he stepped on the court.
Hildebrand hung tough against Gambino and lost his serve just once in the second set. However, he wasn't able to find an answer for Gambino's serve.
Hildebrand lived in Florida for two years before moving back to York to help take care of his parents, both of whom are ill. His father is 78, and his mother, 76.
"It was horrible seeing their situation knowing I could do something," he said.
"Seeing what my parents have gone through made be a better tennis player. I used to get frustrated when things went wrong. I don't anymore because I realize there's more to life than tennis."
Reach Dick Vanolinda at email@example.com or 505-5407