Young tennis star battles odds to succeed in Minnesota

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 5, 2014 - 12:44 AM

A community vested in her training and success helped St. Paul’s Alexis Nelson hit No. 1 in her USTA section.

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Alexis Nelson, trained in cold-weather country, earned a No. 1 USTA ranking.

Photo: RICHARD SENNOTT • rsennott@startribune.com,

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Had her family followed the conventional path, Alexis Nelson already would be living among the orange groves. Tennis prodigies are expected to bloom best in the highly controlled environment of a Florida sports academy; like rare orchids, they aren’t supposed to thrive in Minnesota’s harsh climate.

David Nelson reflected on that theory last week, as he watched his 15-year-old daughter practice against Jesse Sprinkel — one of the best boys’ players in the state — on an outdoor court at St. Catherine University. “It is tough in this environment,” Nelson said. “But what we’ve been doing seems to work. It’s just a different way of getting there.”

The Nelsons’ way has kept them in Minnesota, where a collection of coaches and hitting partners have cultivated Alexis’ talent at courts all over the Twin Cities. Unconventional as it seems, that home-state schooling propelled her in January to the nation’s No. 1 ranking in the Girls 16 division, making her the first junior girl from the U.S. Tennis Association’s Northern Section to reach that pinnacle.

The St. Paul resident spent much of her winter conquering uncharted territory. In December, Nelson made it to the finals of the International Orange Bowl Tournament, where she faced the world’s best junior players.

She followed up by winning the USTA Girls 18 Winter Nationals and participating in a Fed Cup development camp, all first-time achievements by a Northern Section girl.

Nelson does travel to Florida regularly for USTA training camps and tournaments. Though she has not ruled out entering an academy at some point, she said she has everything she needs now right here at home, supplied enthusiastically by a tennis community emotionally invested in her success.

“It feels like we’re all one big team,” said Nelson, who is eighth in the most recent USTA Girls 16 rankings. “Everyone here is behind me and supports me. It’s like a community project; everyone pitches in and helps, because they love the game and want to see people reach their full potential. It’s awesome to have that.”

A state of stars

Because Alexis does not drive yet, David Nelson spends considerable time shuttling her to the many clubs and courts where she practices at least once a day. Alexis picked up the game at age 3 by hanging out with her dad, a self-described tennis fanatic who plays whenever possible. David still provides some of Alexis’ coaching, though he shares the task with many of the friends he has made through years of moving through Twin Cities tennis circles.

Alexis’ coaches and hitting partners include instructors at the Fred Wells Tennis and Education Center in St. Paul and the Life Time Fitness clubs in Fridley and Bloomington. She regularly practices against the state’s top-ranked men, such as two-time Class 1A champion Charlie Adams of Blake and Notre Dame’s Wyatt McCoy, who won a Class 2A title at Mounds View.

Nelson entered her first tournament at age 9 and rose to elite-level competition at 12. She plays an aggressive baseline style, with solid ground strokes complemented by a growing command of strategy and emotional resilience.

“Every year, she just gets better and better,” said Marc Stingley, the longtime tennis director at Fred Wells who has helped coach Nelson since she was 5. “I’m not surprised she’s had these results, because she’s been on a steady path to a very high level. She and her family have done things the right way. And she’s a very motivated, driven player.”

Her recent success has raised Nelson’s profile in relation to her more famous rivals, Jessie Aney and Ingrid Neel of Rochester. Aney, 16, a state Class 2A champion at Century High School, recently committed to play college tennis at North Carolina. Neel, 16, who played boys’ tennis at Mayo High School, now spends most of the year training at Florida’s IMG tennis academy.

Helping hands

While it may seem unusual for a cold-weather state to produce three concurrent standouts, former pro star David Wheaton credits Minnesota’s strong tennis infrastructure — which also makes it possible for Nelson to continue developing here.

Though it is important for her to get blocks of training time with the best players in her age group, he said, the Twin Cities provide top-flight facilities and practice partners for her day-to-day work.

“This area is a tennis hotbed,” said Wheaton, of Excelsior. “People here are really engaged, and they support Minnesota players. It’s not without precedent for players to develop outside Florida and California.”

Nelson already has played a handful of lower-tier professional tournaments. She won her first pro title in March, teaming with Californian CiCi Bellis for the doubles crown at an ITF event in Florida. Still, Nelson plans to remain an amateur so she can pursue a Division I college scholarship. She has been taking high school classes online for the past two years and is interested in colleges on both coasts.

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