Thursday, May 4, 2017

Precocious Priya: Already like a pro at 11

Priya Nelson displays her Easter Bowl gold ball and sportsman-
ship award with her father, John, left, and coach, Joseph Gilbert,
at Indian Wells in March. Photo courtesy of Joseph Gilbert
   For Priya Nelson, winning the Easter Bowl girls 12 singles title in March was a breeze compared to the last time she stepped on a court at Indian Wells.
   On the other side of the net was a pretty good player. You might have heard of him. Fellow named Novak Djokovic.
   Two years ago, Djokovic was getting ready to practice on a distant back court in front of a handful of fans during the BNP Paribas Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.
   Normally, stars practice on one of three front courts at Indian Wells while fans pack the surrounding stands.
   "There was like five people, and I was the only kid there," recalled Nelson, a lifelong Sacramentan who will turn 12 on June 22. "Well, there was one other kid. So (Djokovic) had me and the other kid come down to his court, and we (each) played one point with him."
   Nelson's Indian mother, Bonnie (born Bhavna Parmar), witnessed the -- ahem -- stroke of luck.
   "He was like, 'I want some kids to practice with me, get me started, get me warmed
up,' " said Bonnie, a financial planner.  
   Djokovic handed Priya one of his rackets, and the showdown began. Who won?
   "Him," Nelson groused.
   Ditto for the point against the other kid, a boy. Hey, children have to learn that nothing in life is going to be handed to them -- other than grades, of course -- right? But Djokovic complimented Nelson afterward.
   "He said, 'You did a good job for having my heavy racket,' " Bonnie noted.
   Priya said she wasn't nervous facing Djokovic, which seems odd until you consider that she has exhibited traits of professional players almost since she first picked up a racket at 3 years old. Nelson has unusual intelligence, variety, natural ability, poise, touch, competitiveness and dedication.
   Three weeks before the Easter Bowl, Nelson played No. 1 singles and doubles (except for one match at No. 2 doubles) in the USTA National Boys & Girls 12 Spring Team Championships in Tucson, Ariz. The tournament used a college dual-match format, with six singles and three doubles matches. Nelson went 4-0 in singles without losing a set and 2-2 in doubles for the Tootsie Pops, who won the Northwest consolation bracket.
   Janusz Conradi, the Tootsie Pops' coach, was so impressed with Nelson that he likened her to a friend and childhood practice partner in Poland. You might have heard of her, too. Young lady named Agnieszka Radwanska, ranked eighth in the world and formerly second.
   "(Nelson) has a gift that not too many players have at this stage," Conradi said. "She knows how to win points. In certain situations, she knows what she needs to do to win the point, and she's going to do it. She can come up with a pretty clear pathway.
   "She's very organized when it comes to her pattern of play. She's also able to change it. This is something very unique among junior players. Many kids know how to hit topspin cross-court and topspin down the line. She's able to change the pace with her slice, she's able to change the pace with a heavy topspin, able to hit a flat backhand down the line. These are shots that you are expecting from professionals. She has that variety at a very young age."
   Conradi continued: "This is something I'm sure she learned from watching other players. I'm sure she's going to improve physically and technically later on. I would like to see how she plays in three years, how she improves in those areas. She's tall (5-foot-4 or 1.62 meters), but she's tiny (91 pounds or 41.3 kilograms). ... The intelligence, the tennis IQ, reminds me a lot of Agnieszka."
   Gay Goff, who plays at the Rio del Oro Racquet Club in Sacramento, observed Nelson's intelligence last weekend as the phenom cruised to the girls 16 semifinals in the Rio del Oro 18s, 16s and 14s Junior Championships. The semis are scheduled for Saturday at 10:30 a.m. and the final for Sunday at 9 a.m.
Priya Nelson, wearing her trademark Roger Federer
cap, takes a selfie with Federer's Swiss countryman,
Stan Wawrinka, during the BNP Paribas Open at In-
dian Wells in March. Photo courtesy of the Nelsons
   "She's amazing," Goff marveled. "If she sees her opponent likes pace, she doesn't give it to her. It's instinctive. If she has to run wide for a shot, (the ball) goes up to give her time."
   Nelson also is perceptive on the practice court.
   "She learns well when you teach her," said Conradi, the director of junior tennis at Oakbourne Country Club in Lafayette, La. "Sometimes you teach a student five things, and they learn four. With Priya, you teach her five things, but she learns seven or eight. It's very unique the way she sees things."
   John Nelson said he first saw something special in his daughter when she was 4. And John knows what he's talking about. He teaches physical education at Pacific Elementary School in south Sacramento.
   "She had a little Dora the Explorer pink racket, and she would hit foam balls with her (older) brother," said John, who met Bonnie when they were students at Sacramento State. Priya and Ravi, 15, are their only children. "She just did a lot of things that were natural. She would keep to the side of the ball and move and hit the ball with topspin. She had never been taught to do that. Her footwork was really interesting for such a small kid."
   Priya, a home-schooled sixth grader, and Ravi, a freshman at Rio Americano High School, train under Joseph Gilbert at the JMG Tennis Academy at the Arden Hills Club & Spa in Sacramento. Ravi, Rio Americano's No. 1 singles player, won the Capital Athletic League championship last week.
   "(Priya) watched her brother," said Gilbert, the academy's founder and owner. "From a coach's side, the younger ones watching the older ones, it definitely helps."
   Goff saw Priya play mini-matches at age 4.
   "They played four games then," Goff said. "She was like a professional. There was no fussing."
   Nothing has changed in that regard.
   "Priya's always mentally calm," Gilbert said. "I've had my share of different kids on that, but she's definitely one of the best at keeping her emotions under control."
   Gilbert began working with Nelson when she was 5.
   "Priya picked up (the game) pretty easily," he said. "She has very good hands, very good feel. She understands the game really well, and she has since a young age. It's easy to teach the skills she needs, and she likes to compete. That's one thing we changed in her schedule as I got to know her and talked to the parents. We upped the tournament side because she liked to compete so much, and that started making a difference right away. She was the one who said she wanted to play more tournaments. I usually have a lower (frequency) of tournaments, but you've got to adjust to every kid."
   Gilbert elaborated on Nelson's understanding of tennis.
   "She just understands the feel of it, the movement, covering the court," he said. "She has good hands, so she has the skills to put the ball where she needs to when she's in trouble. And (she has) good court sense -- when to be aggressive, when to be more defensive. She's always had that. Since 6, 7, 8 years old, she could feel the court really well.
   "As a coach, you've got to move her in that direction, to her strengths. It works well with me because I like it. I was attracted to her as a player from a very young age because I felt she had good hands, good feel and good court sense, which is right up my alley for what I enjoy teaching (versus power)."
   Nelson won the girls 8-and-under singles title in the 2013 Little Mo Nationals in Austin, Texas, and made her Easter Bowl debut this year. She was unseeded at Indian Wells because it was only her second Level 1 national tournament; Nelson reached the third round of the USTA National Winter Championships in Tucson in late December.
   The Easter Bowl singles draw featured five of the top 10 girls in the USTA 12-and-under rankings but only one of the top five. No. 1 Katja Wiersholm of Kirkland, Wash., No. 2 Vivian Ovrootsky of San Jose and No. 4 Robin Montgomery of Washington, D.C., played in the 14s, and No. 5 Nikita Vishwase of Phoenix did not play in the tournament.
   No. 3 Matilyn Wang, a Scottsdale, Ariz., resident seeded first in the Easter Bowl girls 12s, lost to unseeded Eleana Yu of Mason, Ohio, in the semifinals.
   Nelson ousted three seeds in the Easter Bowl, including No. 2 Tsehay Driscoll of Pacific Palisades in the Los Angeles area 6-1, 6-4 in the first round, before beating Yu 6-1, 6-3 for the title. Yu is the top-ranked sixth grader on Driscoll is fourth and Nelson fifth.
Priya Nelson poses in front of a pool at the Arden Hills
Club & Spa, where she trains, in Sacramento last month.
Photo by Paul Bauman
   "After I saw that match (against Driscoll)," Gilbert said, "I was like 'All right, it pretty much shows she can play with anybody in the tournament. Now let's keep it consistent throughout a whole week.' That's something we've been working on, and I was trying to challenge her at the tournament to do that, not to have any sluggish days or down days or where you're not 100 percent prepared. ...
   "To her credit, she did the thing I thought was toughest for her to do, is to do that throughout a week. She was probably the best (all week) in the final. She was the most fired up and the most energetic (with) the most attention to detail, which for a coach was really fun to watch."
   Nelson became the fifth junior and first girl from the JMG Tennis Academy to earn a gold ball for winning a national Level 1 title. The others are Collin Altamirano (2013 USTA National boys 18 singles), Jenson Brooksby (USTA National boys 12 singles), Austen Huang (2015 USTA Winter Nationals boys 18 singles) and Karl Lee (2015 USTA National Clay Court boys 12 singles plus three doubles titles).
   Altamirano, a University of Virginia junior who's 15-5 at Nos. 1-4 singles and 17-3 at No. 3 doubles, will try to help the Cavaliers win their third consecutive NCAA title this month.
   Nelson came close to an Easter Bowl "Triple Crown." She reached the doubles quarterfinals with Maryia Hrynashka of Rancho Cordova in the Sacramento area, losing 10-8 in a match tiebreaker to the fifth seeds, and won the girls 12 sportsmanship award.
  Nelson, whose favorite shot is her slice backhand, now is ranked sixth nationally in girls 12 singles.
   "She has a good, clean game," Gilbert said. "Her serve is solid, she's consistent, she moves well. I like her forehand -- she can hit it heavy. Sometimes that's the shot that gets a little inconsistent at times, or the backhand gets a little stray. But overall, if she stays focused, she's clean on all of her shots, and that's what makes her tough to beat."
   Like Conradi, Gilbert appreciates Nelson's variety.
   "She plays points that are fun for me to watch because she'll hit so many different shots in a point, whether it's a high ball, whether it's a slice, whether it's an angle, whether it's a cut serve," Gilbert said. "She can do all of that in one point. She's pretty comfortable at the net, she's got good hands, so it's a little bit of a well-rounded game. I don't think anything really sticks out. I just think it's clean all over."
   Less than 48 hours after winning the Easter Bowl, Nelson was back on the court in the first round of the 16s in the Gold River Junior Championships at the Gold River Racquet Club in the Sacramento area.
   "Most of the time -- probably with 90, 99 percent of our players -- I would not have suggested that, but Priya likes to compete and play, so I let that one fly," Gilbert said with a laugh. "Three or four years ago, I would have texted or called the parents and said, 'Take her out of the tournament,' but I'm adjusting to her, and she's enjoying it. That's showing -- she got to the final of the 16s (at Gold River). She had a great tournament. ...
  "In the past, I spaced out the tournaments a lot more, and I still do with some players because they need that mental break from it, but Priya doesn't bring those emotions. Collin is a good example. Collin is so emotional on the court that doing back-to-back-to-back tournaments is exhausting for everybody (laughs), so we take breaks. Priya keeps a good, even demeanor, so I have to look at that and go, 'You know what? It doesn't take as much of an emotional toll on her to play these tournaments.' "
   Nelson ousted top-seeded Avantika Willy, last year's girls 14 NorCal Sectional champion, 6-3, 6-4 in the second round at Gold River en route to the final and won the 14s doubles title with Tomi Main of Seaside in the Monterey area.
   Nelson always wears a Roger Federer cap on the court and rarely takes it off at home. She idolizes Federer "because he's really good on court and his mental (approach) is really good and he's always really calm and I like how he moves and the way he treats others on court," she said.
   Nelson hopes to play professionally someday. She already trains like a pro, pounding balls and working out at Arden Hills from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. five days a week to prepare for weekend and national tournaments.
   The question, according to Gilbert, is whether Nelson can stay motivated for the next five or six years.
   "It's hard not to get distracted, to stay healthy, to enjoy it, to come out every day and be fired up and want to keep working and improving," Gilbert said. "That's the hard thing about tennis. It's a really long path these kids have to take, so where Priya's at right now, I don't have any big things I feel are holes in her game. To keep doing what she's doing for a long period of time is probably the biggest challenge."
   Bonnie Nelson is realistic but not worried about Priya burning out.  
   "There are no guarantees of any sort," Bonnie conceded. "Kids change as they grow. But one of the biggest things I can say towards her success is if there's something she needs to work on -- footwork or her backhand, whatever it is -- she works on it. That's the difference between my son and her. She wants it; she's hungry for it. That's what's driving her."

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