When you get to be one of the ten best tennis players in the nation at the age of fourteen, chances are that playing the sport is essentially a full-time endeavor. The ranks of elite junior players tend to be comprised of home-schooled youngsters or campers at big-name tennis academies in Florida.
Certainly, very few kids at that level join their classmates on the high school tennis team – the competition doesn’t always stretch their game and balancing the team’s schedule with travel to tournaments can be difficult.
But for all her success on the court, Wilmington Friends School 8th grader Aubrey Nisbet was determined to join the school team this spring season, and her addition to an already talented squad is sure to put Friends in a good position heading into the state championships in May. Nisbet is 5-0 so far this season, winning each of her matches in two sets.
Nisbet is the No. 1 ranked 14-and-under girl in the Middle States region (DE-PA-NJ) and has reached as high as No. 5 nationally. She’s currently ranked 11th in the National 14s.
Her goal for this year is to get a junior world ranking.
Even still, as an 8th grader, Nisbet still feels some nerves about playing at the high school level for the first time.
“It’s really exciting and a little nerve-wracking to be playing number one as an eighth grader,” she said. “I have a great team. We are all very supportive of each other.”
Nisbet has had plenty of exposure to both big-time tennis and high school championships, growing up on the courts with her older brother Connor, who was a nationally ranked player himself who went on to become the state’s top runner. Connor began focusing on cross country and track several years ago and will matriculate at Princeton next fall.
“Connor is an amazing runner. I am so proud of everything he does. His hard work definitely pushes me a little bit. Not many people have a brother like I do who is willing to hit with me on court and willing to run with me and work out with me. He’s great. I sometimes take advantage of that.”
But Nisbet hints that despite all her brother’s accomplishments, she is aiming to be the best tennis player in the family.
“Running and tennis – they’re quite different. He was an amazing tennis player in his 14s and even 16s. I do want to get the best national ranking. So, I’m a little bit competitive with him. I don’t think he knows that!”
Nisbet says she has an aggressive game style and looks for opportunities to capitalize on her two-handed cross-court backhand. “I try to just step into every ball and really go for the shot. I also like short balls that I can attack with my backhand.”
Wilmington Friends Head Varsity Girls Coach Ken Dill has been following Nisbet’s progress closely since she first picked up a racquet and says he hoped she would choose to play tennis for her school. “Aubrey comes in with the highest ranking of any player we’ve ever had. So she has a chance to be the best.”
Dill – himself an accomplished national-level basketball and tennis player – said it is clear Nisbet loves playing and working on her game. “She is very good technically. She has excellent footwork and just beautiful strokes,” said Dill. “But she is also a very, very good athlete. She’s very mobile and quick. And when you put that all together, that’s why she has such a high national ranking.”
Coach Dill also said Nisbet’s addition to the squad will help raise the level of play for everyone on the team. “That’s one of the reasons I hoped she would join the team – to be an example of what can happen when you do put your mind to it. The other players knew about her reputation, but she has fit right in and everything is going great,” he said.
For her part, Nisbet says she is appreciative of the comradery among her Wilmington Friends teammates. “They’re all really supportive and all so sweet. We’re going to have a lot of fun this season.”
When Nisbet practices with the team, she typically hits with her good friend Alexis Montana, who herself played Singles 1 last year as an 8th grader and will play Singles 2 this year. Montana’s father Pablo is the head tennis coach for the University of Delaware Men’s Tennis Team.
Nisbet also has a dad who knows his way around the court – Bruce Nisbet, her main hitting partner and instructor who she plays with almost every day. “He is a big help to me, helping me prepare both on and off the court. We always talk about my strategy going into tournaments. We study the draws and the strength of my potential competitors. That is a big part of going into a tournament – being prepared. My dad is a really big help and it is really nice to have him.”
Nisbet’s national tournament schedule is increasingly bringing her into more demanding and challenging competitive situations. Just last month she traveled to Puerto Rico to her second ITF World Tournament, where she found the level of play to be the most intense of her young career.
Yet the 14-year-old brings a good-natured, positive but focused approach to every match. “When I am on court and having a tough match, I just think back to what I have done in practices. Before I go on, my dad always gives me a hug and says, ‘Just remember happy feet, and breathe.’ So, when I am nervous, I just say to myself, ‘Happy feet and breathe.’ That works most of the time.”
Nisbet says the level of competition at the national and international levels is noticeably more difficult than regional play. “The nationally-ranked players are so focused, they’re so intense. They really learn to dig in. And nationally, you really see it all. The talent is amazing.”
Although she looks forward to playing high school tennis season, her demanding national tournament schedule still requires her to often forego many social activities that typical 14-year-old girls enjoy. But Nisbet says the sacrifice is worth it as she aims to one day play in junior grand slams and a top-level college program.
“I want to keep up tennis and school at the same time, so that’s challenging. But I’d also love to keep up a good social life. I definitely miss birthday parties and dances. And I’m okay with that because I love playing tournaments. As long as sometimes I can hang out with my friends, that’s good.”
In addition to her cross-court backhand – which she says is her big weapon – Nisbet says she is also gaining a reputation among her tennis-playing peers for her on-court snacks. “I’m definitely known for my eating habits on court, and I’m probably the unhealthiest eater in my family. On court I’ll sometimes bring Skittles and a Coke. At practice today I had a donut and a Starbucks drink. I like to have ice cream after matches. A lot of people laugh at that. But I’ve won so many matches because of my Skittles!”
Aubrey’s recent tennis highlights include:
- National Indoor Champion (Gold Ball) for Girls 12s doubles (with Esha Velaga) at Flushing Meadow, NY November 2017
- Bronze ball (third) in National Indoor G12s singles championship, Flushing Meadow NY November 2017
- Silver ball (runner up) in National Winter doubles G14s championship (with Amelia Honer), Tucson, Arizona January 2018
- National Indoor Champion (Gold ball) G14s Doubles (with Maeve Thornton, Tennessee) November 2018