Zach Healy and KC Knack exchanged ground stroke after ground stroke, each time ripping a shot that seemed to clear the net’s tape by a slimmer margin.
Finally, Healy cut loose a forehand toward the heart of the net, where Erin Vits was waiting for a tailor-made smash. Only it caught her off-guard, forcing her to contort her body for an awkward backhanded winner that barely cleared the net.
Vits cracked up, and longtime friend Katie Hammitt followed suit on the other side of the net. Even as Knack tossed the ball for his next serve in the first match of the 15U mixed doubles bracket at the Emma Hubbs Classic on Wednesday morning, Vits and Hammitt were still giggling like mad.
“It’s fun to play with your friends, because they can laugh with you,” Vits said.
Knack and Vits went on to win the whole shabang, less than 24 hours removed from taking second in the 18-and-under mixed doubles ladder. Earlier Wednesday morning, Vits cruised to the 13-and-under girls title. On the other end of the cage, 9-year-old Riley Bally, in her first Emma Hubbs Classic, was battling veteran Avery Meyer in the 11-and-under group.
The rookie fell 6-1 and placed third, but she got what she came for.
“Having fun; that’s what it’s all about,” Bally said.
Her mom, Michelle, echoed that sentiment.
“I don’t want her to come out here and feel too much pressure to win,” she said. “The important thing is to come out and get the experience. The winning will come later, when she gets bigger and older. I love her having a sport she can enjoy and be passionate about.
“Her hard work pays off, and she doesn’t give up. It’s a good feeling to see her do that. I think it has a lot to do with Emma. She’s so encouraging, and she always pushes them to work hard and stay with it.”
Abby Aitken, who took second to Meyer, found traction much easier Wednesday morning. The 11-and-under girls was one of three brackets postponed by Tuesday’s steady rain.
“I had to play in the rain last night; it was not fun,” said Aitken, whose dad, Kip, stepped down as the Sterling head coach, but hopes to keep assisting. “He wants to stay with it, because it’s part of him.”
Riley competing up in age speaks to Vits, who begged her mom to let her play at 9 a.m., rather than with the tots, when she was little. The reason being, she wanted to play the game she immediately loved for an hour, not just a half an hour.
“That does warm my heart to see someone playing the first time, and playing kids who are older than her,” Vits said of Bally. “It’s saying you’re strong and you’re going to try something new. You’re going to love it. You’re going to love learning and having the experience of playing in a real tournament. It’s completely different from playing a normal game in sessions. There’s a whole new tension in the air. You can feel your nerves jittering. You’re like ‘Oh my gosh, how am I going to do?’ And you usually end up being pretty proud.”
Meyer could relate to Bally, too, since she’s had a penchant for playing up a ladder or two.
“Sometimes it’s kind of scary, because they’re older and better than you,” Meyer said.
But thanks to Hubbs working with Bally since she was 5, she has learned to rotate her hips and snap off serves. She says she’s equally effective from both service boxes, and the foot faults that plagued her are fewer and farther between.
“Foot faults a really bad thing, because it can take points away from you,” Bally said.
Bally said she admired Meyer’s hitting ability, both her forehand and her backhand, and said being able to learn from the opposing players was her favorite aspect of the event.
So a girl like Vits would be a good one for Bally to watch. Her mom, Inez, is an assistant coach at Newman, where her sister, Annie, will be a junior this fall. Erin first started taking lessons when she was 3 and only recently started playing singles. She remembers her first Emma Hubbs Classic, in which she and Healy beat her sister’s duo for a title.
“Bragging rights,” she said. “I don’t bring it up now. It’s just, like, a victory in my head: ‘I beat you the first time.’ Although my sister and I are even now.”
For a girl who says she’s very hard on herself, Vits laughs at herself frequently during each match. See: that awkward backhand and the giggle fit that followed.
She’s tandemed with Hammit a number of times in the past, but they’ve also had some epic battles.
“We’ve had absolute lobfests,” Vits said, “where we were both lobbing it back and forth and screaming at each other to stop lobbing. The other one would yell, ‘No!’ and we were both laughing so hard after the point. It took a while.”
Over the past couple of years, Hammitt has edged her by a point each time in the 15-and-under group.
“If I win by one point this year, I’m never going to let her hear the end of it,” Vits said, busting into a laugh.
Hammit will be a sophomore at Dixon and has 2 years on Vits.
“But you can’t even tell,” Vits said. “We just get along so well, it’s like there’s no age difference. It’s just two best friends playing tennis and having the time of their life.”
Vits tends to wax poetic when she talks about why she loves tennis, but she quickly credits Hubbs for “giving me that love.”
“This is my life,” she said. “It’s a social sport, and it’s something that you can always get better at. You can always improve and learn.
(PULL QUOTE) “When I’m out here playing, I think, ‘It’s my life, but it’s not just my life. It’s someone else’s life, too.’”