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It's less lonely at the top for tennis star

Gaither standout Brianna Williams, 16, still outpaces most others, but she's on friendlier turf this year.

By TERRY JONES
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 28, 2002


NORTHDALE -- Even though tennis is usually a focal event for social activities with friends, for top youth circuit and high school players like Gaither sophomore Brianna Williams, it can also be a lonely sport.

During weekend tournaments, she sees fellow players. But with the total focus required to meet the intense competition, there is little time to socialize at the tournaments. As a freshman last year at Gaither, she was the new youngster on the team, and at the state championships she went with only one doubles teammate, senior Liz Rogers.

Again this year she qualified for the state tournament as a No. 1 player, but no teammates accompanied her. But the social atmosphere for Gaither girls tennis is changing for the highly skilled young player.

"Almost everyone on the Gaither team is around my same age this year, and I have really enjoyed making friendships and the encouraging and cheering for one another," the 16-year-old Carrollwood resident said.

"I still qualified for the state meet alone this year," she said, but thinks next year the entire team will qualify.

To qualify for the state tennis tournament, a team must win both the district and regional meets. But the No. 1 singles and doubles who win the district as individuals also qualify.

Last year and this year, Williams won the No. 1 singles. Last year she also qualified as part of the top district doubles team, along with Rogers. Last year, Williams and Rogers won the state championship for individual qualifiers.

Tennis players competing in the youth circuit in Florida travel around the state and nation for the highly competitive United States Tennis Association age group tournaments.

Parents from other states and countries move to Florida when their children are as young as 10 to give them opportunities to become pros out of the USTA youth circuit.

Williams said she started the weekend and sometimes weeklong tournaments at about age 10.

"I have met a lot of people through the years in all of the tournaments I have played," she said. "Sometimes our parents would meet together with us for dinner after a hard day of competition."

As a freshman last year, Williams sometimes felt shy and uncomfortable, even though she beat out all the seniors for the No. 1 position.

"She isn't quiet and shy this season," Gaither girls coach Michelle Wilson said. "Most of the girls are young, and she has become a little chatter box. She is a great team leader on the court and encourages her teammates off the court. As a player she is one of the best and she certainly isn't intimated in a match."

In two regular seasons as the Cowboys' No. 1 player, Williams is undefeated. She is also undefeated in district play.

Her only loss last year was to the singles state champion in the state meet.

"I practice with my team as often as I can, but mostly I train with my private coach about three hours after school," she said.

The college-bound teen spends about three hours a night studying, starting at 8 p.m.

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