High School Sports

Teen earns NCAA singles title, leads Duke to championship

Mallory Cecil is S.C.'s amateur athlete of the year.
Mallory Cecil is S.C.'s amateur athlete of the year.

Mallory Cecil could as easily have been enjoying her final semester of high school last winter when she strolled onto the Duke University campus.

It didn't take long for her coaches and teammates, many initially skeptical of the teenager, to discover she belonged.

Her tennis opponents got a full dose of her playing ability, something that left many thinking there's no way an 18-year-old freshman just beat them so soundly.

But Cecil did time and again, going 32-4 in singles to lead Duke to its first NCAA team championship while she captured the NCAA singles title.

Her superior play, prior to turning professional last summer, makes the Spartanburg native The State's Amateur Athlete of the Year.

"I could not have been more blessed with how that turned out," Cecil said. "Never in a million years could I have thought that would happen."

It might take that long for NCAA tennis to see another superstar rip through its ranks in such whirlwind fashion, collecting trophies and accolades along the way.

Having trained at Florida's IMG Academy under coach Nick Bollettieri since age 13, Cecil finished high school a semester early to enroll at Duke in January.

Four months later, she had become the Blue Devils' No. 1 singles player, winning 15 consecutive matches at one point. She won the Honda Award as the nation's top female college tennis player as well as the ACC Tournament Most Valuable Player award.

Off the court, her teammates and coaches say, Cecil proved just as impressive.

An honor roll student at Duke, she made the ACC's All-Academic team.

"She came in and, amazingly, was an instant leader on our team," Duke coach Jamie Ashworth said. "She did a great job with adapting to that situation. She is really good at adapting in new environments."

Cecil has plenty of experience.

Growing up in Spartanburg, she attended Spartanburg Day School through seventh grade and played tennis at Spartanburg Country Club.

Her parents, Doug and Julie Cecil, were accomplished at another sport at the club. Doug played golf at South Carolina, and Julie was a college golfer at Southern Methodist.

Mallory, though, took to tennis and in the months before her 13th birthday, she and a group of friends decided that attending a one-week tennis camp at the Bollettieri Tennis Academy would be fun.

Her parents thought a nice birthday present would be to get her a private lesson with Bollettieri, a renowned instructor who has worked with numerous pro champions, including Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Monica Seles and Maria Sharapova.

That present became the gift that is still giving today because Bollettieri, after seeing Cecil up close, offered her a scholarship to train full-time at his academy.

"When he first said it, I was like 'Is he really serious about that?' Cecil said. "Then my parents said 'We just got a call from Nick and he wants you to come down.' That's when I thought, 'Oh my God, this is big time.' "

It was just the beginning.

Working with Bollettieri, Cecil steadily improved. She was runner-up in the 18-under division of the National Clay Court Championships in 2006. The following year, she qualified for the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open junior tournaments.

As the nation's No. 1-rated high school recruit, Cecil had her pick of college destinations. She chose Duke.

Her reputation preceded her arrival, but that brought natural skepticism from her new teammates.

"She came in at a hard time," said Melissa Mang, a Duke senior player last spring. "Our team was pretty close. She came in the middle of the year. But she really fit in. She's a sweet girl. Very hard working."

Mang said Cecil's work ethic, likeable personality and unexpected maturity allowed her to blend right in with her established teammates.

"Her game is so good, I felt like I learned a lot from her," said Mang, who has graduated and moved home to Louisiana but remains close friends with Cecil. "I had never seen her play before. I had no idea how great she was. It took me just a few times to realize why. I'm just glad she chose us."

Cecil rose to the No. 1 singles position with the Blue Devils, winning 15 matches in a row from March 25 to May 17. Duke won the ACC championship and the national championship before Cecil took home her singles national championship.

She still hardly can believe she won the individual title at such a young age.

"It was in the back of my mind," Cecil said. "But it wasn't the forefront. It was just a fairy tale. A complete fairy tale."

The next step on her magical career path brought a tough decision. As much as she enjoyed Duke, Cecil's instant success brought an opportunity to turn professional.

"It was really difficult for me because it had been such a great experience for me at Duke," Cecil said. "The goal for me has always been to play pro tennis. It was what I always wanted to do. I knew that was what I was going to do."

Her national championship earned her a spot in the U.S. Open field and Cecil decided that was a good place to start her pro career. But her first steps beyond college proved difficult.

In her first-round match in New York, Cecil lost 6-0, 6-1 to Italy's Tathiana Garbin, the world's No. 52-ranked player.

"I will NOT forget that," Cecil said with emphasis. "I can't start much worse that that."

Now the task is to get better. Cecil signed with Lagardere Unlimited, a management team that includes Andy Roddick and Justin Henin among its stable of players. She lives in Bradenton, Fla., and trains at the United Tennis Academy.

"In New York," Ashworth said, "she learned that she has to be single-minded and focused in that way. She is moving in the right direction. She is committed to her goals. It will take her another year and half to really get where she wants to go."

Given how things have progressed so far, it would be surprising if she doesn't get there.