by Lisa Mushett
Alexis Nelson liked flying under the radar. The shy 13-year-old from St. Paul, Minn., went about her business on the tennis court hoping people wouldn't notice. That was until late June when she earned runner-up honors at the US Open National Qualifying Tournament, not in the junior division, but in the women's draw, and almost overnight, she went from a relative unknown to the "one to beat."
A typical teenager who loves to read, bike and is a "craft junkie" according to her dad, David, Nelson just finished her eighth-grade year at Capital Hill Magnet School in St. Paul. She started swinging a racquet at the age of 3 when she would accompany David, who is a self-proclaimed tennis fanatic, to the local tennis courts. When he finished playing, David would take Alexis on the court and was surprised at what he saw.
"She always wanted to hit balls when I was done so I took her on the court and noticed she had pretty good timing for someone so young," David said. "After that, I kept feeding her balls and she was a natural."
In her signature unassuming fashion, Nelson has quietly become one of the best female players, regardless of age, in USTA Northern. She is currently ranked first in the Section in Girls 14s, 16s and 18s, and nationally, Nelson is ranked ninth in 14s, 36th in 16s and 129th in 18s. She won a bronze ball at the USTA Winter Nationals in Arizona two years ago, and since then, has won a number of USTA Junior National Open events around the United States in both singles and doubles. With credentials like that, others in the tennis world couldn't help but start to notice this rising superstar.
But it was at the US Open Qualifying Tournament at the Baseline Tennis Center in Minneapolis June 22-24 that made flying under the radar no longer an option for Nelson as she won two matches over her adult opponents and then lost in the finals 6-4 in the third set to Nyla Beenk, another junior prodigy from LeClaire, Iowa. Ironically, Nelson barely made the age cutoff for the tournament, turning the required 14 years of age only 18 days before the deadline date of August 27.
"I played pretty well in the tournament, but Nyla was better than me that day." Nelson said. "I didn't have a lot of expectations coming in, and I knew the other players were really good. I just wanted to play my best and see how it went. It turned out pretty well."
Indeed it did, but Nelson's success hasn't come easy. She trains at the Fred Wells Tennis and Education Center in St. Paul, and David, who is her primary coach, tries to set up weekly matches with many of the area's top tennis teaching professionals and college players.
"It has taken a lot of practice and hours on the court, and the hard work is finally paying off," Nelson said. "I want to do everything to the fullest so when I grow up I don't look back and have any regrets.'"
She is also fortunate to have two other top-ranked national junior players nearby in Jessie Aney and Ingrid Neel, both of Rochester. Aney and Neel, who are 14, have both won their share of tournaments and Aney was named the Sports Illustrated SportsKid of the Year in 2010. The trio often plays together, and Nelson and Aney have played doubles at some national tournaments.
"It would be nice if the three of them could train together more often," David said. "It would continue to push them and make them all better players."
Alexis, who has played over 150 matches in 2012, still has a full slate ahead of her this summer as she will play at the USTA National 14s Clay Courts and Hard Court Championships, in Florida and Georgia, respectively, and at the Girls 16s Intersectional Championships in Shreveport, La.
And how does Nelson feel knowing that she is an underdog no more?
"I don’t play tennis for the fame and recognition," Nelson says. "I like staying under the radar and just try to play my best without too much hurrah."