The start of the tennis season always brings interesting subplots around the country. This year, none can touch what the dominant storyline in Minnesota's Class AA division, where a 12-year-old girl is attempting to replicate Billy Jean King-like heroics at the high school level.
Just by insisting on competing against boys, Ingrid Neel is making a significant statement. The 12-year-old miniature dynamo actively gave up the chance to play high school girls tennis in the fall so she could play with the boys in the spring, a feat which was accomplished after her parents petitioned the state athletic association to make her eligible to play boys tennis.
The fact that Neel insists upon playing tennis against boys at the high school level while she is still in seventh grade is nothing short of remarkable. Yet, here Neel is, all 5-feet-nothing and fewer than 100 pounds of her, ready to absorb whatever the best teams in one of the state's toughest tennis divisions and conferences can throw at her.
Make no mistake about Neel being a part of the boys tennis team because Rochester (Minn.) Mayo High doesn't have a girls team. Mayo does have a girls team, which competes in the fall and is the current Big 9 Conference champion. Neel just bypassed her expected high school's girls team because the competition wasn't nearly tough enough. Despite her relatively audacious age and stature, Neel has already climbed through the Minnesota girls junior tennis circuit to her current position atop its statewide rankings.
If there was any question whether Neel was too talented to play against other girls, they were answered in recent months. According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Neel knocked off Minnesota's Class AA girls champion, Kelsey Frechette, in tournament play over the winter. In fact, she defeated Frechette three separate times.
Amazingly, Neel isn't even the only uber-talented seventh-grade girls tennis star in her own hometown. The girl who Frechette defeated in her state title match was another Rochester seventh-grader, tiny Jessica Aney, who is the current Sports Illustrated Sports Kid of the Year.
It's also a near-certainty that Neel won't shy away from additional attention and expectations that come her way as a result of playing with boys. The precocious pre-teen has worked with U.S. tennis legend John McEnroe at his newly minted New York-based talent academy. The tennis icon's coaching interactions with Neel were chronicled as part of a story on McEnroe's latest venture in the New York Times.
Neel and her coaches claim to have modeled much of her game on McEnroe's tactics, with the slight Neel charging the net, often to the complete surprise of her opponents. Add in an impressive accurate serve and deft drop shot, and Neel is tough competition for any teenager, male or female.
In fact, her performances have been so impressive that Mayo high actively sought to incorporate her into its full team, a squad which has built quite a legacy of success; Mayo has won the Section 1AA championship in each year since 2003, and expects to compete for the Big 9 Conference title every season.
Whether or not Neel is able to duplicate her junior tennis success at the high school level at such a capricious age remains to be seen. What is certain is that other coaches won't be caught off guard when a tiny girl is pitted against one of their top-seeded players.
"It will be interesting," Mounds View (Minn.) coach Mike Cartwright told the Star Tribune. "It's going to be hard for some guys, wondering how the heck they are losing to a seventh-grade girl. But she's just really talented."
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