July 25, 2016

Intermittent clouds

Girls tennis: Cloverleaf’s Emily Dunbar carrying on family tradition

Cloverleaf freshman Emily Dunbar is 11-0 on the season and has won 132 of the 133 games she has played as her team’s top singles player, but the 14-year-old has never had a private tennis club lesson.

There’s a simple reason for that.

Actually, there are several reasons.

Cloverleaf freshman Emily Dunbar is the latest in a long line of talented tennis players in her family. (GAZETTE PHOTO BY RON SCHWANE)

Her father Keith served as a teaching pro in 26 countries, often at the highest level of the sport. Her mother Vicki (Nelson) Dunbar was a three-time Division I state champion at Wooster High from 1977-79 and went on to a 10-year professional career, achieving a high ranking of No. 60 in the world.

Oldest brother Ethan, a four-time Gazette MVP at Cloverleaf, finished fourth in the 2010 state tournament as a senior. Another brother, three-time Gazette MVP Jacob, last spring became the first Medina County singles player to win a state crown, then graduated from high school a year early.

Now starring at the University of Richmond, Ethan and Jacob were around to push their little sister and correct any minor details Mom and Dad might have overlooked in Emily’s early years.

But a private lesson from a paid tennis instructor?

“Never had a coach,” Keith quipped. “She’s completely self-taught.”

Quiet, down-to-earth people, the Dunbars have a state-of-the-art tennis court at their Lafayette Township home, but volunteer none of their lofty accomplishments in the sport. The specifics take a handful of questions to ascertain, and often require a small family conference to remember years, locations and specific accomplishments and finishes.

But ask Kevin, a 1976 Olmsted Falls graduate, and Vicki, a 1981 Wooster alumnus who finished high school a half-year early, about the importance of their children’s participation in high school tennis and the words flow. They felt strongly about it when Ethan and Jacob were at Cloverleaf, and they feel the same way now that Emily is in high school.

“It’s important,” said Vicki, who played at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., before turning pro. “I just feel like they should play for their home school. The school’s always been very nice to us. Emily missed a lot (of school) to go to tournaments, so we have to give back.

“Plus, I wanted her to be on a team. She hasn’t played any other sports, and it’s good to play a team sport. She’s very quiet, so it’s good to be around people and learn how to interact and handle different things.”

Emily, a straight-A student who has the same strawberry-blonde hair as her mother, is doing an exemplary job of that.

In a sport where the very best players sometimes elect not to play high school tennis, usually because they — or their parents — feel their game and college scholarship opportunities are better served by entering United States Tennis Association tournaments year-round, Emily doesn’t consider her talent to be anything special.

Maybe that’s because at home, it’s not.

Her dad played at Olmsted Falls and was going to join the college team at Miami of Ohio, but a shoulder injury put an end to that. Instead, Keith became a teaching pro and has provided instruction all over the world. His students have included Davis Cup players and the woman who eventually became his wife.

Keith and Vicki met at a Women’s Tennis Association tournament in Atlanta. At the time, Keith was teaching out of Hilton Head, S.C., and Vicki lived in Florida. They went through a grueling six-hour training session the first time they got together, met for another the next day and eventually discovered they were both from Northeast Ohio.

After marrying, their love of the game was passed on — but not forced upon — Ethan, Jacob and now Emily, who has been playing tennis for as long as she can remember.

“I started when I was 2,” she said.

At that age, the few kids who can pick up a racket and swing it with any type of accuracy often learn by hitting balloons. Emily went straight to tennis balls.

“She had unbelievable coordination at 2. Better than my boys,” soft-spoken Vicki said matter-of-factly. “She hit from the service line because that was all I would let her do, and she was halfway decent.”

By age 6, Emily was playing virtually year-round and competing in national tournaments. It’s been that way ever since — not because she has had to do it, but because she has wanted to.

“I went to every tournament my brothers played,” she said. “I couldn’t wait to get out there. Always watching them, I wanted to do it.”

Emily estimates she’s played tennis in 35 states. She won a Level III 14-and-under USTA national event in Columbus, Ind. — Level I is the highest — and is currently ranked around 100 in the country in her age group.

That ranking would be higher, but Ohio rules prevent players from participating in USTA events during the time they are playing for their high school team. When Emily was playing in the 12-and-unders the entire year, she got up to No. 50 in the country.

The 5-foot-4, 110-pounder has also played in numerous Level I events, including the four “super national” tournaments held each year, and usually wins a match or two.

“It’s fun,” she said. “It’s nice to travel and go to so many different places.”

The owner of a solid serve and great groundstrokes from both sides, Emily hasn’t been tested at all on the high school level. The only player to win a game off her this season has been Highland junior Allie Welch, a two-time All-Gazette pick.

Always looking to improve, the right-hander uses those matches to work on her aggressiveness and net game, but never regrets her decision to join the Cloverleaf team.

“I wanted to play for my school and I wanted to support my school,” she said. “I try to work on things. I work on going for more shots.”

On days when one of her parents is available to hit with her, Emily does not attend Cloverleaf practices. That has the full blessing of 10th-year Colts coach Brenda Hewit, who has no one on her roster remotely skilled enough to push the ninth-grader.

When her parents aren’t free, Emily attends practice and receives instruction just like everyone else, though she’s also been able to help her teammates.
“She’s very quiet and shy, but she’s starting to come out of her shell,” Hewit said. “It’s been great, because I can see the girls learning from her as far as warm-ups, practice habits and stretches.

“She’s very down to earth and she’s embarrassed by any attention.”

More attention will be coming, however, as Emily will be a heavy favorite to win the Medina D-I Sectional this year, with an Oberlin District title also a possibility. The state tournament is a different animal, but with a good draw, most veteran followers of the sport think she is good enough to win a match and perhaps two, which would put her in the semifinals.

A serious player but a typical teenager, Emily doesn’t know a whole lot about any of this.

“I’m just going to do my best,” she said. “I don’t know how well I’ll do, but I’ll do the best I can. I’d like to make it to state and I’d like to win it before I finish high school, but I don’t really think about it.

“My mom helps me understand how hard it is. She doesn’t talk about it that much, but when she does, it’s more about what I can do to improve.”

When pressed, Emily concedes she’d like to become a pro, but quickly adds “it’s very hard and not very likely.”

Vicki Dunbar, who won state titles her first three years at Wooster before losing in the semifinals as a senior, isn’t concerned about what her daughter might accomplish on the court this year. Nor is she trying to map out her youngest child’s tennis future.

Right now, she just wants Emily to be a happy and well-adjusted Cloverleaf freshman.

“I don’t even mention the state tournament, and turning pro is one in a million,” Vicki said. “That’s like winning the lottery. You have to have so many things on your side and you have to want it.

“When I was her age, I never even thought about playing professional tennis. I don’t think you should even talk about that. If it happens, it happens. You should do your talking with your racket. I downplay all that and just say, ‘Do the best you can.’”

Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or rnoland@medina-gazette.com. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.

Rick Noland About Rick Noland

Rick Noland is the Cavs beat writer for The Gazette and the author of "Over Time," a compilation of stories he's written in more than 30 years as a journalist. He can be reached at 330-721-4061 or rnoland@medina-gazette.com. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.