Sayre’s Caroline Hager and Grace Headley had already become fast friends over the last couple of years training at the Lexington Tennis Club.
So, when second-year Spartans coach MacKenzie Harju approached each of them about the possibility of playing doubles together this season, she knew it was a combination that might work.
The tough part was convincing two gifted singles players that the team’s best shot at the region and state tournaments would be for them to team up.
“I think every USTA player that comes into high school wants to play singles, and there is a stigma about doubles,” Harju said Thursday as the pair competed in the KHSAA Girls’ State Tennis Championships. “But once they figured out how fun it is and the extras that it adds to your game … Their goal is to go on and play in college, and it’s a definite asset to have doubles strategy and play under their belt.”
The chemistry of Hager, a freshman, and Headley, a sophomore, has yielded an 11th Region title and two opening-round wins Thursday in the state championship at Shillito Park.
But it took some coaxing.
“I had to go to each one individually. And I first asked them to tell me what their goal was,” Harju said. “I pretty much had to be a salesman and kind of sell it to them.”
Meet results Girls’ doubles Girls’ singles Boys’ doubles Boys’ singles
Once paired up, Harju and the girls saw the combination’s potential almost immediately.
“We’d never played doubles together, and it was amazing how fast we clicked,” Hager said. “We both want it a lot. And we’re both willing to work hard. That dynamic just blows up on the court, honestly.”
Thursday, the fifth-seeded pairing, each making their first state appearance, shook off some nerves and swirling winds at Shillito to oust Corbin’s Emily Morton and Cora Stevens 6-3, 6-2 in the first round. It wasn’t exactly the easy opening-round win Harju was hoping for.
“I think it was nerves,” she said. “I think it was one of those matches where they knew they were better, but they just couldn’t get out there and play every point. They were inconsistent. And when that happens you have momentum switches. You have that all the time, but this was a little more than I would have liked.”
Later, Hager and Headley looked to be cruising to an easy second-round win, taking the first set 6-1 and going up 3-0 in the second, but consecutive service breaks against Hager, then Headley, then Hager again, let Central Hardin’s Emaleigh Board and Kayla Ditto back in it at 5-4.
Hager and Headley were each broken with the wind at their back as they struggled to keep balls in play. But while frustrating, the pair weren’t rattled by it, thanks in part to what they said was their training advantage.
“It doesn’t matter how windy it is in town, it’s always windier at Sayre,” Headley said, referring to their home-court complex.
Headley is the taller of the two, and her aggressive play at the net won a number of points on the day, including the second-round match winner that halted Central Hardin’s rally and closed out the set, 6-4.
“I’m most comfortable at the net,” Headley said. “I love being up there.”
Harju shies away from any expectations for her doubles tandem. But she knows she has a good thing going, because of “how they finished this season at the region … just very few errors and on their game,” she said in between matches Thursday. “And we’re trying to get back there. We want to get this (first one) out of the way and get used to the crowds and get it clicking again.”
Harju believes their friendship has been the real key to their success.
“It’s nothing on my part,” she acknowledged. “They are just two great players that like each other. If you can communicate on the doubles court, you can win matches.”
Hager and Headley next face Middlesboro’s Baylie Brunsma and Madison Saylor in the round of 16 at 10:30 a.m. Friday at the University of Kentucky’s Boone-Downing Tennis Complex.
REPUBLIC BANK/KHSAA STATE TENNIS CHAMPIONSHIP
When: Through Saturday
Where: UK’s Boone-Downing Tennis Complex
Time: Play begins 8 a.m. Friday. Semifinals 9 a.m. Saturday, Doubles finals noon Saturday; Singles finals 2 p.m. Saturday
Tickets: Free admission Thursday, $10 day pass Friday and Saturday