Spartanburg’s Cecil hits return shot to Duke as a coach
By GREGORY HARDY - firstname.lastname@example.org
Mallory Cecil has the accolades to prove she is a special tennis player.
As a Duke freshman in 2009, the Spartanburg native blazed her way to an NCAA singles championship, and The State hailed her as the South Carolina amateur athlete of the year.
On the strength of that year, she left the national champion Blue Devils to join the WTA Tour, earning a wild card to the U.S. Open.
Today, Duke women’s tennis is as solid as ever. The team finished 2011 as ACC champs and ranked No. 3 in the country. The incoming recruits are the nation’s top class, according to the Tennis Recruiting Network.
And who is providing instruction and motivation on the sideline?
Meet student assistant coach — and now former professional tennis player — Mallory Cecil.
“Maybe I am done with the professional side of things and the competitive side,”
the 20-year-old sophomore said, “but it’s still very much fulfilling my tennis appetite.”
Duke coach Jamie Ashworth knows for all the talent and discipline Cecil displayed in rising to the heights of the college game, jumping into the professional ranks is a different vocation.
“When you turn pro, it’s a job. There’s people literally fighting for their dinner that night,” Ashworth said. “She definitely wants to be a part of tennis. She loves tennis, she loves being a part of our team, she loves Duke. But she’s on a different side of that now. And she’s flourished in that role. It’s not an easy role to be in, stuck in the middle of coaching or playing with her peers.”
By becoming a professional player, Cecil gave up her eligibility to play collegiately. She returned to the classroom, and by coaching, she can have Duke pay for her studies — and she doesn’t count against the team’s scholarship limit.
Since her return, her work ethic and training is indistinguishable from her ex-teammates still on the court.
“She goes through conditioning and weights every day, treats everything she does like she’s a player, except for when she’s helping us on the practice side,” Ashworth said. “I don’t know if I’d be able to do it, knowing I wasn’t playing matches.
“She’s fully immersed herself into our program. It sets such a great example for everyone else.”
Even while being a solo act on the pro tour — responsible for her own training, equipment and scheduling — there would be weekends where Cecil would take advantage of Ashworth’s offer to have access to Duke’s resources and facilities.
As she considered the gap between professional independence and college camaraderie, Cecil’s preference became clear.
“The pro life is very different than my life at Duke,” Cecil said. “At Duke, you’re involved with a team. You’re surrounded by eight other girls and doing everything with them — playing with them, traveling with them, that kind of environment.”
After months of dealing with the solitude of life on the road, a torn labrum in her hip forced Cecil out of Charleston’s Family Circle Cup in April 2010. Her ranking sitting in the mid-300s, the injury provided a chance to reassess her options.
“I realized my education was important to me,” she said. “You can’t really juggle professional tennis and school at the same time. It may be a blessing in disguise, the injury.”
Cecil — who left Spartanburg before high school to enroll at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., to be coached by Nick Bolliterri — still has time to declare her major, but she is leaning toward political science along with acquiring a marketing/business certificate. She is aiming for a spring 2013 graduation, after which law school might be an option.
And while tennis and school are priorities, there is still time to squeeze in a social life. She joined the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority, and Ashworth made it clear it is not her job to report to him what the women are up to.
This coming season will be the first where none of the girls will have been teammates with Cecil.
“They won’t know her in any capacity other than coach,” Ashworth said. “I think that will allow her a little more of an authority role and leadership role.”
Ashworth said Cecil proved most valuable this past season by being an extra pair of eyes during the most hectic parts of matches.
“Especially in the doubles, when we have three coaches for three courts, it’s a great situation,” he said. “She got used to working with the same doubles team over and over, and they looked to her for advice all the time.
“As long as she’s around and willing to help, we’ll definitely take her.”
Even if becoming a full-time coach is not a long-term goal, returning to Duke as a coach has allowed Cecil to continue her education and keep open options for the future — while staying involved in the sport that first brought her to campus.
“It’s been a really cool learning experience, of seeing it from a different perspective,” Cecil said. “Obviously I always intend to play tennis — I think it’s a great life sport, you can play it at any age. I definitely intend to continue playing on and have it be a part of my life, because it always has been.”