BRATTLEBORO — During a January tournament in Burlington, Emelia Rae Winter, 13, became Vermont's Under-18 tennis champion. While she has been ranked No. 1 in Vermont in the United States Tennis Association's 14-and-under category since she was 11, the Burlington tournament was her first playing against older teens, including the then-No. 2 player, who was vying for the top spot.
"For those tournaments you get 45 ranking points for every win," Winter explained. "She had 20 already in her ranking, and I didn't have any because it was my first one, but I would get 90 points for
winning the tournament. I won two matches and got 90 points, and she won one and got 45."
Her father, Andy Winter, is her coach.
"He's a certified teaching pro, and he gives a lot of lessons at the tennis club," she said. "When he was a junior player, he played in a lot of tournaments. Then when I was about 6, he started back up again and taught me."
She noted that being coached by her own father can be challenging.
"Sometimes it's hard, but I don't think I could have gotten as into tennis as I am now without him," she commented. "I'm so lucky to have someone who knows so much about the game just right there."
Winter practices at the Brattleboro Tennis Club and the Brattleboro Outing Club.
"I play almost every day, probably six times a week, for an hour and a half," she said. "But now I'm also doing more physical exercise like stationary biking and muscle strengthening."
Winter thinks of tennis as two activities — practice and match play — and while she now enjoys both, that wasn't always so.
"Three years ago, I wouldn't play a match," she recalled. "I wouldn't play a single point - not against my dad, not against anybody. I guess I'd never done it, it was unknown, and I was just insecure."
She began to play in competitions, and then arrived at a major turning point last year in Florida.
"I went to the Nick Saviano High-Performance Tennis Academy for February break for two weeks," she said. "I worked harder than I've ever worked, and I got so much better. I got physically stronger, and I got more endurance, but most of all, after that I knew that if I could play tennis for six hours a day in 85-degree weather, then I could stay in any match.
"After that, I haven't given up in a match," she continued. "Some days it's really hard to go to practice - I'm tired or I have a ton of homework to do - but just that showed me what I'm capable of."
She said that she has a state ranking, a regional ranking, and a national ranking.
"I'm number one in Vermont in 14-and-under and 18-and-under, and for 14-and-under in New England I'm No. 60," she continued. "For 18-and-under in New England, I think I'm now No. 150. If you win a higher-level tournament you get more ranking points, but there are also a lot better players."
Winter, now an eighth-grader at Hilltop Montessori School in Brattleboro, is hoping to play tennis in college, and she has begun to see tournaments as practice.
"Sure, I like winning, but when I apply to colleges for a tennis scholarship, they're not going to be looking at my 13-year-old ranking," she said. "So, mostly, I just play tournaments and matches now - I've learned to love competition, and I love when it's super-close. Some people hate that, but it's great practice, so I love it."
She is not planning on a career as a professional tennis player; balancing her commitment to tennis with school, friends, and art is already difficult.
"I've thought about it, but I've made the decision - I don't want tennis to be my entire life," she commented. "I still want to be able to do other things I love, and I feel like if I did pursue that and then got an injury, which does happen to a lot of people, then I wouldn't really have anything else."
She enjoys sharing her passion for the sport with others at tennis camp.
"I've had to sacrifice a lot of things to be able to play tennis," she said. "Something nice at camp is that all the kids want to play tennis as much as I do; here none of my friends play tennis like I do. They
have other sports or other interests.
"I know a lot of people who think tennis is not that hard - girls I know who say, `Yeah, I'll play tennis, I can just learn it,'" she concluded. "But if you do any sport at a serious level, it takes so much work. That's one of my favorite things about it. I look at myself a couple of years ago, and say, `Wow, I've changed so much.' I`m proud of how much I've put into it, and I know it's really paid off."