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Published: Thursday, 8/26/2004

Sidelines: Serving notice

BY MARK MONROE
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

It s a good thing the Vaez family of Perrysburg did not

toss out a flier offering free tennis lessons that came to

their house seven years ago.

They may have never discovered that their daughter Neela was a tennis prodigy.

Neela Vaez, a junior at Notre Dame Academy, carries the best chance of any local girls player to take home a state title this fall. After her sophomore season she reached the state quarterfinals

and has a 55-6 career record.

As a freshman she finished fourth in the state.

It all got started with a flier that was sent to my house when I was 9, Vaez said. I just tried it and it kind of exploded from there. I just took right to it.

So it would seem. Now 16, Vaez is the two-time Toledo City women s singles champion, in which most of her competitors are adults.

Notre Dame coach Bob Krueger was involved with the Catholic Youth Organization that sent out the offer of free lessons as a community service.

That s when this all started, said Krueger, who has coached Vaez ever since. You could tell right away that she had the reflexes and handeye coordination. She was just a peanut at the time, but

you could tell there was plenty of athleticism.

Krueger has been the head coach at St. John s Jesuit since

1988 and at Notre Dame for the last four years.

She is by far the best player male or female I have ever coached, he said.

Neela s parents, Ahmad and Stephanie, both distinctly

remember their daughter s first crack at the sport.

After the first five minutes one of the coaches came

up to me and said, I hope to see Neela in Wimbledon some

day, Ahmad Vaez said. It amazed me. I ll never forget it.

Thanks to that fateful flier, the entire Vaez family took up tennis, including the family s only son, Amir, who will play at Davidson College in North Carolina. Amir was a No. 1 doubles player at St. John s and was one of the school s valedictorians.

While they were growing up, Amir routinely beat his younger sister in pick-up matches. But that all changed when she became a sophomore and he was a senior.

I used to play with my brother all the time. But it s difficult

now because he is very competitive. I knew when I

started to beat him it really bothered him, Neela said.

Krueger, who coached both of the Vaez siblings, said Amir is very strong individual.

But he wasn t surprised when Neela beat her brother.

She can go toe to toe with all the boys and men in town,

Krueger said. Those matches help her keep tuned up.

In fact this week, Neela has been practicing with Mike O Connell of St. Francis.

O Connell teamed with his cousin, James O Connell, to

win the Division I state doubles title in 2003. They finished

third at state in 2004.

Neela can remember when she began to defeat her parents.

When we all started I used to hit with my parents and they were a lot better then I was. When I was about 12 and a half I definitely remember when they could not get to my shots anymore.

Ahmad Vaez played tennis occasionally while growing

up in his native Iran. Stephanie Vaez, who is from England,

said she had not played before.

I used to go to a few tournaments. Tennis has always

been my No. 1 sport, Ahmad said. Now when I play with

Neela I can t even get one point against her.

Ahmad and Stephanie met at the University of London, married, and then came to the United States in 1979 to attend the University of Toledo.

Both are now in education Stephanie is a professor

at UT and Ahmad teaches at Owens Community College.

Stephanie said when the family discovered Neela s talent for tennis,

they planned her development carefully.

We kind of planned it slowly because we didn t want her to be great when she was 12 and peter out from there, she said.

Each year Neela has a goal of where she wants to be

ranked by the United States Tennis Association.

Currently she is ranked second in the USTA s Midwest

16-and-under division, and No. 8 in the Midwest 18-andunder.

Nationally she is No. 63 in the 16 group and has a 55-18 record in USTA events.

She s always moved steadily up and now we hope

she can make it into the top 20 nationally, Stephanie said.

Vaez s goal is to win the first state title for a Notre Dame tennis player since the early 1980s. As a freshman, she posted a 25-5 record.

Last year Vaez dropped her only match in the state quarterfinals, finishing 30-1.

I try to not think about it too much, Vaez said of her title quest. I don t know what I would do if the worst that could happen happens. I don t want to lose.

Last spring she beat the 2003 state champion, Kirsten

Flower of Upper Arlington, and state runner-up, Christine

Johnston of Upper Arlington, in a tournament.

But Vaez said the biggest turning point thus far came

when she defeated Anna Volberg in the City singles championship

in the summer of 2003. Volberg had won the state title the previous year for St. Ursula. When Vaez was a freshman, she lost three

times to Volberg.

That was a big match for me, she said. She was the big

one. I knew I could do it after that.

Vaez said she entered last year s state tournament with

confidence but was unaware that she was suffering from

mononucleosis.

She won her first game, but the next game she couldn t

move very well, Ahmad said. Then her throat was swollen under her chin.

After she lost, a doctor told her to stay home for two weeks. It took her a full month to recuperate. Since then Neela has played three to four hours every day.

Even when visiting her grandparents in Iran, Vaez

found a private court. She s always traveling, Ahmad said. In the summer my wife is with Neela all the time. It is a game that takes a

lot of work.

On the court, Vaez said she thinks like a pro.

I always aim for the lines and then run to the net and put the volley away, she said. What she does that most high school players don t is when she gets a player in a defensive posture, she attacks

the net, Krueger said. Any time she gets to the net it s

lights out.

Krueger said Vaez has big goals and he said the downto-earth girl has the skills and demeanor to do it.

A lot of kids have talent but they don t know how to compete, he said. That s what differentiates her from everyone else.

Contact Mark Monroe at: mmonroe@theblade.com or 419-724-6110.



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