Judy Kimbell clicked on the television to watch the Australian Open in January and caught a glimpse of the other road her daughter Lilly could have traveled.
On the TV screen was Christina McHale, a 16-year-old American playing in her first Grand Slam event. Lilly Kimbell had beaten McHale eight months earlier at the USTA Spring National Championships, but there was McHale on ESPN2 earning praise from the commentators as she battled valiantly before losing in three sets.
"Christina and Lilly are on very, very different paths," Judy says. "Moments like that can be a little difficult, but you just have to remind yourself why you're doing what you're doing."
After Kimbell and McHale converged last spring, McHale began playing in low-level pro tournaments across the country as she launched her career, qualifying for the Australian Open in the process. Meanwhile, Kimbell returned home and began playing catch-up on her schoolwork. That's because the New Braunfels junior is the exception to the rule.
Kimbell finished 2007 as one of the USTA's top-ranked 16-and-under players and was in the Top 10 in the 18-U division last year. For kids with that kind of tennis talent, high school is generally an afterthought. Schooling is done at home or at a tennis academy -- or abandoned altogether in pursuit of a pro career. It's a system that has churned out most of today's top pros, but it was never the course Kimbell or her family intended to follow.
"I would love to play more tournaments because I just love playing tennis, but there is only so much time and there are other things I'm focused on," Kimbell says. "Being in high school and going to college are more important than turning pro right away. I'd love to one day, but I want to do it on my own terms."
"If all you do is tennis, if your self-esteem is based on success in tennis, if tennis is your life, then what happens to you if tennis doesn't work out?" adds Kimbell's mom. "It's one thing if you're Jennifer Capriati and you're winning everything at 13, but that's a special case. Lilly's day will come."
Kimbell's introduction to tennis hinted at the school-first attitude she now possesses. Her mother first took her to a court at age 6 with only modest expectations. Having enjoyed playing high school tennis herself, Kimbell's mom simply wanted her daughter to have the same opportunity when she got older.
Originally from Vancouver, Wash., Kimbell rapidly established herself as a dominant force in that area. By seventh grade, there were only a handful of players in the Pacific Northwest who could give her a challenging match. So after Kimbell spent a week as a camper at the John Newcombe Tennis Academy in New Braunfels, her family began considering relocating to Texas so she could train year round at the prestigious youth tennis academy.
What started as a long shot became a reality when Kimbell's parents learned they could keep their jobs and work from home if they moved and that Kimbell's academy tuition would be covered because she was so highly ranked. The clincher was that Kimbell could attend New Braunfels High full time and still train at the academy.
Of course, that's easier said than done. Kimbell, a 5-foot-5 counter-puncher who frustrates opponents with her supremely well-rounded game, is up at 5:40 most mornings and on the court by 6:15 for an hour workout before school. With three or four hours of practice after school, it's usually 8 p.m. before she steps in the front door. She has traveled to about eight national tournaments each of the last few years, meaning school assignments need to be picked up in advance and worked on at all hours.
"My whole family changed their lifestyle for me," Kimbell says. "So that's plenty of motivation to stay on top of everything."
Kimbell has thrived amid the frenetic pace, maintaining her elite national ranking while pulling in a steady stream of A's and B's to attract the attention of college recruiters from coast to coast. And she has topped it all off by enthusiastically joining the New Braunfels tennis team and vaulting it to state supremacy.
She played an integral role in leading the Unicorns to team titles in the fall of her sophomore and junior years, and she entered this spring as the
two-time defending Class 4A girls' individual state champion -- far surpassing her mother's initial expectations of simply competing in high school.
"Most of the girls in Texas know Lilly has the match won before they step onto the court," New Braunfels coach David Mueller says.
It's been nearly the same story on the national level, where Kimbell is
120-29 in singles over the past two years in USTA junior events. She won a USTA 18-U National Open event in '08 after winning two of the most
prestigious junior events in '07: the 16-U Hardcourt Nationals and the 16-U Orange Bowl, where she won both the singles and doubles titles.
Kimbell's Hardcourt Nationals victory qualified her for a spot in the '07 U.S. Junior Open, where she dropped a tough three-set match in the first round. But Newcombe Academy Director Phil Hendrie points to her doubles success at the Orange Bowl and with New Braunfels during the team tennis season as a good sign for future success.
"Lilly could easily wind up as a world-class doubles player; it's just another thing she has going for her," Hendrie says. "But the great thing about Lilly is she's not worried about any of that. She's not watching any clock or in any rush to get anywhere. She is just enjoying the journey one level at a time."
For Kimbell, the journey hasn't yet landed her on national TV like some of her peers. But it has set her up for a lifetime of success.
Matt Remsberg covers high school sports for ESPN RISE.