SMYRNA — Ava Emrich was already considered a top-notch tennis player before she ever played a match for Smyrna High.
But you’d never know it, said Eagles’ coach Lindsey Alexitch, by the way the youngster carries herself.
“She just came into the season ready to play tennis,” said Alexitch. “She didn’t come in with this attitude of ‘I’m better.’ She just came in as a student who wanted to be on the tennis team.”
Emrich’s accomplishments, though, would have been impressive even for a senior.
As a freshman this past spring, Emrich lost only one match — in the DIAA state semifinals — while winning the Henlopen Conference title at first singles. Considered a three-star recruit, the 15-year-old is the state’s No. 1-ranked player in her age group.
Alexitch said, to truly appreciate Emrich’s tennis abilities, you have to watch her play.
“When she picks up a racket, it’s just like an extension of her body,” said Alexitch. “She’s just captivating.”
Beyond her tennis skills, Alexitch said Emrich plays the game with a maturity and intelligence beyond her years.
“She’s really thoughtful,” said Alexitch. “Like, before she hits the ball, you can tell she’s thinking about where she’s going to place it.
“She can read her opponent very well and figure out the best strategy that she should use. She’s always a step or two ahead.”
Despite the fact that Emrich doesn’t even have her driver’s license yet, she’s still been playing tennis for over a decade.
Emrich’s parents got her started when she was 4. She also tried soccer, volleyball and gymnastics but there was just something about tennis that clicked for her.
“It wasn’t as popular as all the other sports and they really liked it,” she said. “I remember starting. They thought I was really good for my age.
“It was definitely my favorite sport — and it still is. I really like it.”
In her initial high school season, Emrich didn’t lose a set in winning her first 16 matches. That included three Henlopen tournament matches and two in the DIAA state tourney.
Emrich dropped just 14 total games in those 16 matches.
Finally, though, Emrich ran into St. Andrews senior Allaire Berl in the state semifinals. Berl was seeded second while Emrich was No. 3.
In a match that lasted a couple hours, Berl prevailed, 7-5, 5-7, 6-4.
“She was really good,” said Emrich. “It was a tough match — it was a really long match.
“It was devastating, because I wanted to go further. But it was also very fun. She’s a really nice player. It was a tough match but I learned a lot from it. I’m definitely looking forward to next season, trying to win that state title again.”
Of course, Emrich will have played a lot more tennis by next spring.
One of her favorite things about the sport is being able to travel and meet other players. She’s been playing in neighboring states since she was nine or 10.
Emrich has already qualified with a New Jersey squad for Junior team nationals, which will be held in Florida in the fall. She takes lessons from Rex Williamson and his son, Colt, the former Milford High standout.
Naturally, Emrich would love the chance to play tennis professionally someday. The first order of business, though, is trying to earn a college scholarship.
She’s already on the radar of some schools.
“That’s my No. 1 goal, to play in college,” said Emrich. “I’m excited to get into that part of the tennis world and expand my tennis game to college.”
In a stretch like this, when Wimbledon matches are on all the time, Emrich watches her share of tennis. Her favorite players are Naomi Osaka and Roger Federer.
Emrich has also gone to the U.S. Open in New York.
“It motivates me to work harder,” she said. “I can see how I can improve my game and try to play like them.”
Alexitch has little doubt that Emrich will continue to be successful in whatever she does.
Before she even saw Emrich on the tennis court, Alexitch saw how focused the youngster was as a student in her honors civics and geography class. Emrich was the one who always takes out a book when she has free time.
On the court, Alexitch said Emrich makes the players around her better.
“It’s fun to watch her have fun,” said Alexitch. “Ava is intrinsically motivated all the time. She made such a name for herself in a very short period of time at the high school. Even kids that I don’t think know tennis, know Ava is amazing at tennis. That says a lot.
“She’s just very humble. And she’s just considerate. She’s never full of herself. It’s wonderful.”
At the end of the day, Emrich said it’s not too difficult to keep pushing herself to get better at tennis.
“Honestly, I really love the sport, I really love the game,” she said. “I like playing. It takes my mind off a lot of stuff. It’s one of the best things I have going.”
Sports editor Andy Walter can be reached at 302-741-8227 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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