Lenka Zelinska has made heads swivel, and not just because she’s a 16-year-old girl playing boys tennis.
Zelinska’s skill makes fans at tennis meets stop and take notice. The foreign exchange student from Slovakia, who has a backhand as strong as a forehand, has won 12 of 13 singles matches for the Brainerd Warriors.
Her biggest win of the year was against Riley Bates of St. Cloud Tech May 11. After dropping the first set 6-0, Zelinska regrouped to win 6-4, 6-3, defeating a player many consider No. 1 in Section 8-2A and avenging an earlier loss to Bates.
“I played better,” Zelinska said of her rematch against Bates, “and the weather was better. I was trying to keep the ball in the game more. I hit a lot of balls to his backhand side, and my serve was better.”
Warriors coach Bruce Thompson said Bates was hitting a slice, which gave Zelinska trouble, and she had to adjust. Thompson and his staff suggested she throw in a few lobs, be more patient and selective with her shots, get Bates to hit shots she could handle and put it away.
“To her credit she came around to take the second set 6-4 and then won a strong 6-3,” Thompson said. “That’s some pretty good tennis.”
The Bates-Zelinska rematch attracted a throng of fans.
“That was the biggest crowd we’ve had here, since I’ve been coaching,” said Thompson, who has been involved with Brainerd tennis for more than 30 years.
In their first match April 27 at St. Cloud, Bates rallied to win a 2.5-hour marathon, 2-6, 6-3, 7-5 on a cold, windy day.
“I was sad about it because I lost my first match here,” Zelinska said. “It was my goal to beat him, and I did, so I’m glad now.”
In her country, Zelinska attends a sports school and plays for a club team since European high schools typically don’t sponsor athletics. She practices against boys occasionally but competes in individual tournaments against girls.
“I start school at 7 a.m.” she said. “I have three classes, then go practice. We have a 2-hour practice. Then I go back to school and have lunch, and have two or three other classes after lunch, then I practice after school.”
Thompson said Zelinska’s footwork and quick hands are among her attributes on the court.
“The ball really comes off her racket, she’s so quick to the ball with her racket,” he said. “She generates really good power.”
Thompson believes Zelinska is one of the best ever to play for the Warriors. He added that Tech coach Paul Bates paid her a compliment.
“Paul thought if she had played in the girls season she would be one of the top four girls in the state,” Thompson said.
Thompson added that Zelinska has been a pleasure to have in the program.
“She blends in well with the team,” he said, “and the guys have taken her under their wing. They’ve come to her defense in certain situations.
“When she came out I told her it was going to be real big challenge. She would have to do everything the guys do, and she has. She’s really developed some friendships, which is great. That’s what sport and life are all about.
“It’s been a pleasant blend of culture and tennis. She’s made our guys better, she really has.”
When her time in Brainerd ends Zelinska will miss it.
“I really like it here,” she said. “I like the school. I wish I could take this school to Slovakia. You have a big swimming pool in the school. We don’t have a swimming pool in our school. That’s different, and in my school there are only 200 people.”
Other notable efforts:
• Nikki Anderson, softball, struck out 10 and gave up one hit against St. Cloud Tech, pitched a perfect game against Sauk Rapids, and struck out 14 in a 1-hitter against Fergus Falls.
• Michael Foley, boys golf, was medalist at Alexandria.
• Gunnar Askegaard and Trent Anderson, tennis, went 4-0 in doubles last week.
• Sydnie Mauch and Taylor Huber, track and field, each won two events in the Brainerd quad.
• Josh Murrey, track and field, set a boys school record in pole vault in the Brainerd quad.
• Luke Patron, baseball, pitched six shutout innings against Sauk Rapids.
• Drew Sannes, baseball, pitched a 3-hit shutout against Fergus Falls.
• Hannah Lundstrom, girls track and field, won two events and was on a first-place relay in the Section 8-3A True Team meet.