By RODNEY PAGE
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 22, 2001
Kelly Nelson was in a jam.
It was April 16, and Nelson was playing a third-round match at the prestigious Easter Bowl tournament in Palm Springs, Calif.
More than 3,000 miles away, Nelson's Shorecrest teammates were playing in the opening round of the Class A, District 10 tournament at the Racquet Club of St. Petersburg.
Nelson already had missed the district doubles matches, and if she kept winning in California, she also would miss the next day's singles matches. If so, her junior season would be over and she would have no chance at trying to earn her first state championship.
Nelson lost in the third round of the Easter Bowl, but she already missed her afternoon flight. She scrambled to get a later flight and arrived in St. Petersburg late on the 16th. After a few hours of sleep, Nelson won her semifinal match and played Canterbury's Natalie Tirapelli in the singles final on the 17th, winning 6-3, 6-1. Jet lag, Smet lag.
"The nationals are important, and I wanted to do well," Nelson said. "There are a lot of college coaches there. But I really wanted to play districts."
Shorecrest coach Chuck Kaiser also wanted to see Nelson play districts.
"It was nip and tuck there for a while," Kaiser said. "She was running through the L.A. airport with her cell phone. And then when she got here, she had to switch from hard court to clay. She showed great resolve. She's the mainstay of our team, so it was nice to have her there."
As a sophomore, Nelson also had an invitation to play in the Easter Bowl, but she declined so she could play in the district tournament. Had the Easter Bowl been played at the same time as districts this year, Nelson likely would have missed districts.
"A high school player's junior year is the most important," said Maria Cercone, Nelson's teaching professional, "Coaches look at national tournaments more than anything. High school tennis is nice to have on your resume, but the junior tournaments are the most important."
For Nelson, being a high school state champion has meaning. She finished second in the state individual tournament last season, and she wanted to do better this season.
Nelson went undefeated during the regular season, but the competition was sure to be stiff at the state tournament.
In the first round, Nelson defeated Allie Nichols 6-4, 6-4. In the second round, she defeated Laura Ahmes 6-1, 6-0. In the individual final, Nelson met her match in Courtney Bergman. Bergman, ranked No. 1 in the state in 18-and-unders and No. 3 nationally, defeated Nelson 6-1, 6-0.
"I had a pretty tough draw," Nelson said. "I thought I played pretty well. (Bergman) was a strong player who liked to come to the net. I'd never played her before, but I knew who she was."
Nelson has been active in tennis almost since she could pick up a racquet. She has trained with Cercone at Bardmoor Country Club for eight years and earned numerous junior titles. Nelson currently is ranked ninth in the state rankings.
"She's not the most athletic player," Cercone said. "But she works harder than most players, and she thinks well on the court."
Nelson was undefeated in her high school regular season and lost only once in doubles with partner Neha Shah.
She plans on playing another full slate of summer tournaments, which is no surprise. After playing Bergman in the state final, Nelson traveled the next day to the Gator Bowl tournament in Miami.
In that tournament, she played Class 3A team singles champion Jennifer Dent of Countryside and won 6-0, 6-0.
While her focus will be on national tournaments, Nelson said she hopes she can win a state championship in her last attempt.
"I think it was a good season for me," Nelson said. "I wish I would've won a state championship, but the girl I lost to was very good. I'll try again next year."
If her schedule allows it.
YEAR/SCHOOL: Junior, Shorecrest.
ACCOMPLISHMENTS: Finished second in the Class A state tournament, ranked ninth in the state 18-and-under junior rankings.
FUTURE PLANS: Play college tennis, become an orthodontist.
Favorite athlete: Monica Seles.
FAVORITE BOOK: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin.
FAVORITE FOOD: Chicken.
FAVORITE MUSIC: Dixie Chicks.