When your parents meet for the first time playing mixed doubles, you’re likely destined for accomplishing big things on the tennis court. And so it goes for Kelly Kambourelis ’14, this year’s top-ranked female tennis player, and an academic all-star to boot.
A native of Melbourne, Fla., Kambourelis began playing tennis at age 6 and by middle school was ranked first in the state. That ranking stayed high as she matured, and when Kambourelis arrived at the College, it was with a Top 25 national ranking. As a freshman, she went undefeated as the No. 5 singles player, and then went undefeated again her sophomore year, playing at the No. 2 position on the team. Early in her junior year, though, she suffered a foot injury that would sideline her for five weeks. The pain lingered when she returned to play, but Kambourelis still managed to hit a number of critical shots, propelling the Cougars to their third-straight Southern Conference championship and NCAA tournament berth.
Having fully recovered over the summer, Kambourelis secured the team’s esteemed No. 1 position when she returned to school last fall. It was an honor, for sure, but it also meant Kambourelis would consistently challenge some of the top players in the country, such as freshman phenom Jamie Loeb at the University of North Carolina. All the advantages she may have enjoyed against lesser opponents were washed away with players like Loeb, who seem to have few, if any, weaknesses.
“It’s kind of a mental challenge,” says Kambourelis, a communication major who graduated summa cum laude in May with a perfect 4.0 grade point average. “Every day, even against the weaker schools, you’re playing the best person in that school.”
Yet Kambourelis’ mental toughness is her signature strength, compensating for her small frame and relative lack of power on the court.
“Sometimes I look out on the court at Kelly playing in the No. 1 position, and I’m in awe how this petite young woman who barely weighs 100 pounds is able to pull off some of her wins,” says Angelo Anastopoulo, head coach of the women’s team. “She’s not the most athletic member of the team and certainly not the most muscular, but there’s a drive and determination in her that I have rarely seen in other players in my 23 years of coaching.”
Also noteworthy is her astounding perseverance. During her senior year, Kambourelis was diagnosed with a thyroid disease, which often left her severely fatigued. Anastopoulo says he was “dumbfounded” by this diagnosis. Though Kambourelis had previously mentioned feeling tired, “she still went out on the court and fought like a warrior,” he says, adding that Kambourelis had played for more than a month before a doctor identified the exhausting illness. Kambourelis’ selfless example was truly inspiring to both him and the other players.
“Kelly is unique in that she plays by the motto, ‘Mind over matter.’ To look at her, you’d never suspect that she was a tennis player, much less a celebrated one,” says Anastopoulo. “Kelly’s biggest assets are her smarts on the court and her work ethic. She’s a quiet, humble, unassuming individual, much like a worker bee. She puts her nose to the ground and goes at it – there is no fanfare, no drama and no showy personality, but before you know it, she’s accomplished more than most people only hope to achieve.”
Indeed, in the end, Kambourelis really was destined to achieve big things on the court.
Photo by Mike Ledford