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Lexington Families Merge Over Two Teams

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July 23, 2016 07:14 PM

By Ron Cioffi/USTA Southern

In photo at top, from left: Ernie Ellison; Nathan, Robin and Rachel Gillespie; Claire and Jill Smith.

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Robin Gillespie, left, and Jill Smith set up at the net.
gillespie_kelly_KY45_300Rachel Gillespie, left, put away a volley with Dell Kelly in the backcourt. 

The family connections in tennis can weave an unusual pattern, through generations and different genders.

Two Lexington, Ky. teams have family ties that jump across the Copeland-Cox Mobile Tennis Center, with mothers and daughters and a stepfather and son playing on nearby courts.

Women’s 4.5 captain Dell Kelly alerted staff to these connections. Kelly knows the power of how USTA League can bind players together, as she oversees her state as the volunteer president of USTA Kentucky.

Kelly’s team boasts two mother/daughter combinations, both of whom come from the usual hand-me-down situation of parents teaching children.

Ernie Ellison was a right-handed player when he played tennis for the U.S. Marines. But, a boating accident changed all that. He took 14 years off from the game and then he had to learn to play left-handed. Considering he’s playing at the 4.5 level, Ernie didn’t seem to be slowed down by his injury.

In this weekend’s tournament, Ernie is playing on the same men’s 4.5 with his stepson, Nathan Gillespie. While the ladies were watching action on courts 5-8, the men were on the back side of the bleachers taking in a match tie-break contested by their teammates.

After marrying Robin Gillespie, Ernie refocused her interest in tennis. Always a strong athlete, Robin was a gymnast at the University of Kentucky and an occasional tennis player. When she plays with her daughter, Rachel Gillespie, her jumping ability shows.

“When we get a lob, I figure I’ve got to get it and run back. But, she’ll jump and smack an overhead,” said Rachel. The duo often teams up together on court.

Robin said, “It was all started by Ernie. … He’s been the coach of us all.” She credits her husband whose influence helped steer two stepchildren into a lifelong love of tennis.

Rachel advanced through USTA junior tournaments and was awarded with a scholarship to the University of Evansville in Indiana. She transferred to the University of Kentucky after her freshman year to concentrate on academics. While she stayed away from tennis after her college experience wasn’t as fruitful as she had hoped, she couldn’t get away from the sport in a house filled with players.

“My family would say, ‘We always need a fourth,’ ” Rachel recounted. So, she got back on the court, where her natural talent is evident.

But, the family ties don’t end there. The other mother-daughter duo is Jill and Claire Smith. Mother, Jill, was a baton twirler at the University of Kentucky. She said she always loved tennis but didn’t get immersed in it until after she had two children.

One of those children is Claire, who is a rising senior at Tates Creek High School, along with a commit to Carson-Newman, a university in Tennessee.

Claire, who turns 18 this year, has dealt with the intensity of junior tournaments for years. She called USTA League play, “serious but not too serious. … It’s challenging.”

Her mom said the Carson-Newman coach told her Claire needs some improvement in doubles and that she is getting it with the adult 4.5 level she is playing this summer. “I’m getting a lot more practice in doubles,” she added.

Besides the joy of playing with family, there is also another special component in USTA League play. There was a twinkle in Jill’s eye when she said, “I really want to get to Nationals!”

 

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