Dunleavy: Student of the game schooled them too along the way to No. 1

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Darien’s Caroline Dunleavy is NE No. 1.

TENNIS

A student of the sport, Caroline Dunleavy is quite literally that, signed up and sweating it out at the Justine Henin Tennis Academy in Belgium this fall semester.

You could also put her at the head of the class, having schooled all of New England as the USTA’s No. 1 in 16U for the region this summer.

I like going to net, but that is not really what I do. I just love to be aggressive from the baseline.

— Caroline Dunleavy

The 16-year-old Greenwich Academy high school student, who is also ranked No. 4 by the USTA in its 18U rankings for New England, is keeping up with her grades while upgrading her swing in Europe in the most modern fashion: online.

“It’s similar to what I would be doing at Greenwich Academy,” she said of her studies during her course on the court. “So when I get back I’ll be on track.”

Her game rolls down the track like a downhill locomotive.

In July, she qualified for the USTA 16 and under National Championships in San Diego where she reached the Round of 16 out of the country’s top 200 players.

And never mind being 16: Dunleavy rocketed right over her age group to win the New England 18-and-under hard court championship, held in Amherst, MA Aug. 20-24.

“You can’t really think about that at all,” she said of facing older girls, as she did with downing her opening round opponent. “You just have to play the match. Even when they are younger; younger or older, you just have to play the match.”

Her finals match against a difficult opponent was made more difficult, for her opponent, in fact, due to Dunleavy’s follow-through. And it had more to do than with completing a strong swing.

“I just went into it with a really good game plan,” Dunleavy said. “And when I went into the match I actually executed it perfectly and didn’t really have much trouble.”

Before heading to San Diego, she reached the finals of the 18U New England Sectional Championships in June.

Dunleavy trains back home at Solaris Tennis Academy in Stamford where John DeFilippo is her coach.

She trained for one year in the USTA Junior Player Development Program at the National Tennis Center in Queens, N.Y. and began her semester abroad late last month.

Dunleavy will be playing ‎in several International Tennis Federation tournaments while she is in Europe.

“I like to play pretty aggressively,” she said of her style. “So, when I’m on, I guess, my serve would be good. And I think my forehand is probably my best shot. I love to move forward.

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Caroline Dunleavy next hones her high-powered game in Europe.

“I like going to net, but that is not really what I do. I just love to be aggressive from the baseline.”

Pressure paves the pursuit. Discipline keeps her rolling down the highway.

“You just have to deal with it,” Dunleavy said. “I’ve been playing tennis at a high level, I guess, since I was in sixth grade. So, I guess, if you don’t manage your time right, then, you can’t play at the highest level. You have to just figure out what you need to do to play, and go to school.”

Every day she checks into the tennis center at 8:30 a.m. and after a 45 minute warm-up it’s back and forth over the net for an hour-and-half, followed by the same duration of fitness.

Lunch break leads to another 90 minutes of fitness and 90 minutes of tennis.

Online studies and courses are in the early evening.

“The kids here are really nice, and they’re fun to play with,” she said of her classmates who are from all around Europe. “So I hang out with the kids a lot at practice. They’re from Russia, Turkey, Spain… Usually I am with just Americans, so this has been really different; it’s really cool.”

Her rigors are already upping her game.

“It’s a lot more practice, a lot more fitness then I’ve ever done,” Dunleavy said. “I do fitness at home, but we focus here on strength, or endurance; agility or sprinting in the morning.

“And then we do a lot of prevention-related activities in the afternoon.”

Language barriers? There’s only the pourous net between them.

“I think it’s pretty universal for me,” she said of the language of the sport. “We all understand each other when we are playing, so that’s good. I think you can figure it all out playing tennis.”

Having played herself into a one-girl-tornado buzzing through tournaments over the summer, she is easing into the real thing overseas.

“I decided that since I just finished playing so many tournaments over the summer, I actually decided that I might not be playing tournaments while I’m here, for at least six weeks,” she said. “Because I need to practice more.”

Her big four events are for the USTA throughout the course of the year.

“There’s one over Christmastime that I’ll play in. Then there’s another really big one in April, two others are in the summer.”

She played for GA Gators her freshman year and won the league title in the FAA.

Last season she played two big tournaments in the spring and didn’t have the chance to play for GA.

“I love playing for GA, but it was obviously a choice between playing for some really big tournaments, or that.”

She is focused on her road leading to the DI court in college.

“That’s always been a goal of mine, and we’ll see from there,” she added. “That is definitely right now my biggest goal.”

But if you can’t dream at 16, when can you ever? Could she peek across the Channel and imagine Wimbledon one day?

“I mean, I would love to — I don’t know if that would ever happen.”

She laughed warmly through the words, half at herself, and half with delight of turning the thought into a shimmering vision of the possible.

“Right now, my goal is to play in the NCAA tournament,” she said. “That would be fantastic.”

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Darien Times Sports Editor since 2000

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