Tennis taking Hamlin to Duke

Ellyse Hamlin, 18, currently the No. 1 ranked player in New England, recently signed a National Letter of Intent to attend Duke University.
Ellyse Hamlin, 18, currently the No. 1 ranked player in New England, recently signed a National Letter of Intent to attend Duke University.Contributed Photo

In the beginning, it was simply for fun. Nothing serious, just something to keep a little girl active.

When Ellyse Hamlin was five years old, her mother Anne, put her in the car and drove her down to the local tennis club in Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire, England, and stuck a racquet in her hands.

And a tennis career was born.

Well, sort of. The spark didn't ignite until a couple of years later when Ellyse was back in the United States and had added soccer to her sports regime. Hamlin, who spent some of her formative years in Westport, played both with equal excitement and athleticism but when she was eight, that tennis spark burst into a flame.

Goodbye soccer.

"I think I liked the aspect that (tennis) was a `single' sport," Hamlin is saying, sitting in a side room at the Intensity Tennis Club in Norwalk, a few minutes from when she will sign her National Letter of Intent to attend Duke University. "I'm out there by myself and I've found that was better and I enjoyed that a lot. I love being out on the court and competing. That (love) has always been there."

For the past decade, the love has blossomed into a career that has taken her all the way to the top of the mountain in juniors and for the immediate future, will take Hamlin down to Durham, North Carolina to college and to see just where the next step in this tennis journey will take her.

Having just celebrated her 18th birthday, Hamlin is currently the No. 1 ranked played in both New England and Connecticut and is ranked No. 6 nationally. Her United States Tennis Association ranking is 39, her International Tennis Federation ranking is 139 and her IMG Tennis RPI rating is 26.

"The best part of my game now is my forehand and my backhand," Hamlin said. "I've really been working on that and I've been working a lot my return which is coming along. I've been working on my forehand return a lot, it's been something that I've wanted to develop over the past couple of months and I think I've been doing a pretty good job of doing that. I'm just working on putting it all together.

"I think I'm an all-court player. I love to come to the net and I'm willing to stay at the baseline and try to beat my opponent any way I can. I still need to work on my returns and I think just day-in and day-out competing and a lot of the little things, some days my backhand might be a little off so I'll work on my backhand and forehand and serve so I think everything still needs to improve to be able to compete at the best level."

So far in 2014, Hamlin won the USTA National Selection Tournament in Aston, Pa., reached the semifinals of the INKA Bowl in Peru, the USTA Claremont ITF in California and the USTA National Masters Championship in Boca Raton, Fla., the quarterfinals of the Prince Georges County (Md.) International tournament, going 22-11 against some of the best Junior competition in the world.

But starting next fall, Hamlin will go against some of the best collegiate competition in the country at Duke, a team that has been to 18 consecutive NCAA tournaments under head coach Jamie Ashworth.

"Jamie, he's unbelievable," Hamlin said. "Ever since the first conversation I had with him, I just instantly loved him and Mark (Spicijaric) and they're both amazing coaches and I know they'll both help me get to where I want to go."

Two things have helped Hamlin work her way up the tennis ladders -- home schooling (which allows much more flexibility to practice) and her coach for the last 10 years, her stepfather, Ryan Ginley.

"My dad has been my coach since I was 8. That's a long time to deal with me," Hamlin said.

"And vise versa," said Ryan, sitting next to her. "Maybe that's why it worked."

Ginley said that Hamlin has been a practice monster for as long as he can remember, doing drills for hours on end to make herself better.

"She competes really hard so she's a different player in matches," Ginley said. "When she gets into the matches, it's all about choosing the right shot and seeing the game the right way ... problem solving a little bit better. She's such an unbelievable athlete with ridiculous technical tools and shots at her disposal, it's about picking the right shot for the right situation."

And based on her 22-11 match record this season, it seems Hamlin is getting better at picking out the right shots for the right situation.

"I finally have started to figure out how to play tennis, actually. Got the strokes down, the movement, everything," she said. "Now, it's more about putting it all together and having ... there's always something to work on but I want that to be as little as possible. I want to have everything together, which I think has really come together."

And Hamlin can thank her dad/coach for that. For about a year and a half, Hamlin was up before the sun, taking the train into Grand Central Station and then the subway to Flushing Meadow in Queens to the USTA facility to practice for six or seven hours before reversing the process going home.

"I got some good hitting in and there were some really good coaches there," Hamlin said. "But it was a grind. It was a tough commute for me and I needed to keep up with my school work. Besides, I wanted to stay closer to home and no one knows my game better than my father."

So, together they work at the Intensity Tennis Academy in Norwalk, continuing the work they started a decade ago, looking toward a future, one day, perhaps on the WTA Tour.

"I'd like to do some pro circuit events," Hamlin said. "I want to gain a WTA ranking and work up from there. I have a lot of friends in the tennis world, some have gone pro, some have gone to college, some have gone to college and left. So, I've gotten a lot of different perspectives on what I could do. It's all up to me."