Lords of the Strings
by Joshua Rey, 13 August 2009
WEST HARTFORD, Conn. - When I left Miami for New England last February, I had two major concerns. What am I going to do when it snows and where am I going to find good tennis? I still haven't figured out the winter weather, but I got my tennis answer at Elizabeth Park, where 800 varieties of roses have long outshined nine dusty hard courts.
Not long after making my move, I met Phil Gordon in a local pro shop and told him I was a 4.5 player looking for a good hit. Gordon, a 65-year-old who's spent more than half his life teaching tennis to inner-city youths, invited me to Elizabeth to hit with a junior from his Tennis Unlimited summer camp. Upon arriving, I quickly learned that though flowers may flourish in Elizabeth's world-famous rose garden, a trio of racquet-swinging siblings is blooming on concrete.
My hitting partner on that June 2008 day was taller, stronger and better than me. She was also half my age. I couldn't believe my ears when Dayna Lord told me she was 12 years old. I couldn't believe my eyes when after 30 minutes of baseline bashing, I sported a sweat-soaked shirt while hers appeared as if it had just been dry-cleaned.
And that was just the warm-up.
As our set began, I was on the receiving end of faster serves and cleaner strokes than I'd ever encountered in four years of college club tennis at Florida International. I mustered just enough energy to run down enough of Dayna's devastating shots to drop the set 6-4. When I walked over to Gordon to praise my opponent, he introduced me to Melissa and Matthew Lord, Dayna's younger siblings, as if to say, "There's more where that came from."
Playing against an older, more experienced opponent isn't out of the ordinary for the Lords. Ten-year-old Matthew is No. 18 in USTA New England's Boys' 12 singles rankings. Melissa, 12, is No. 3 in the Girls' 14s. Dayna, who turned 14 over the summer, is No. 1 in the Girls' 16s.
But playing in a section that hosts just two of the USTA's 175 national junior tournaments, the Lords aren't a household name in America. Gordon likes it that way.
"We are working in a nice, quiet way. Nobody really knows what we are doing," he says. "In this country there is too much hype going on in tennis with these kids and their parents. A lot of them fall through the cracks."
Gordon cites Jamea Jackson, Scoville Jenkins and Donald Young, who continues to have his career guided by mom and dad. That's not an issue with the Lords.
Roy and Iona Lord raise their children just four miles away in Bloomfield. Roy is a relocation specialist for Bloomfield-based Nationwide Moving, driving trucks along the East Coast. Iona is a work-at-home mom who is a familiar face at Elizabeth, where she watches to enjoy, not to instruct.
Happy Lord sisters
"Do I know anything about tennis? No," says Iona Lord. "I like the sport and that's why I introduced them to it. It's something they can do all year through."
Three kids playing tennis was never part of Iona's parental plan. As Melissa says, "We first started as exercise, but then we noticed we were good at it, so we started playing more."
Training sessions five days a week at Elizabeth Park are easy enough on Iona. "It's not like I'm bringing one to tennis, one to soccer and one to softball," she says.
Tournaments are a different story. With children playing in three different age divisions, it's impossible for the Lords to be in more than one city at one time. On rare occasions, one tournament site will host multiple divisions, as was the case with June's sectional championships at Yale, where Dayna and Melissa won titles and Matthew picked up three wins.
When it comes to national championships, Iona is often forced to pick and choose which of her children gets to play when, for both financial and geographical reasons. Melissa missed out on the Girls' 14s National Clay Court Championships in Florida to warm Dayna up for the Girls' 16s event in Virginia. Dayna is returning the favor this week in Georgia, supporting her little sister at the Girls' 14s hard court nationals while her own division competes in California.
Matthew is still waiting to make his national junior tournament debut, though he's already getting high praise from Gordon.
"The brother is coming right behind," Gordon says. "He's going to be the real player."
You won't find the Lords playing in nationals during the school year either. Melissa and Dayna just completed their first year as students at Kingswood-Oxford, a college preparatory school with highly-acclaimed academics and athletics programs.
The sisters were excellent students throughout 2008-2009, while leading the Wyverns to a 13-0 record and the league title. Playing against girls as old as 18, Dayna won the No. 1 singles championship and Melissa teamed with Alena Mukdaprakorn to claim the No. 1 doubles title.
"It's hard to play tennis and try to keep up with school and having a social life at the same time," says Dayna. "But in the end it's worth it. You just have to have friends who support you."
Dayna need look no further than her siblings to find understanding friends.
While Matthew was on the road with Roy, the sisters arrived at practice August 4th in good spirits. Dayna has just won four of six matches in Virginia her first, and possibly only, national tournament of 2009.
"You just want to go out there and do well, play as many matches as possible," she says. "There's not as much pressure as what other people put on their kids. I just go out there to have fun, which comes with winning, yes."
As the sisters begin to warm up, an odd mix of gunshots and giggles can be heard. The gunshots are actually Dayna's serves. Now 5'10", the eldest Lord creates a surreal sound when her racquet meets the ball. Though she says she's joking when she talks about having the fastest 13-year-old serve, it's not beyond belief.
The giggles are Melissa's. She's hiding a secret from her sister, whose birthday is coming up soon, and she's milking it for all its worth.
"You're going to be so happy," Melissa teases. "You're getting something you're going to like."
As usual, the Lords will be playing older opponents at Elizabeth. Melissa opens up against 25-year-old Patricia DeLorso, a fellow pupil of Gordon's. On the adjacent court, Dayna will be challenged by Greg Schmidt, a left-handed spin doctor who won the Connecticut Tennis Circuit state title in 2008.
Dayna shows Schmidt what she's got early on when she blasts an ace out wide on the Ad-court, drawing a deep breath from her opponent. But Schmidt recovers and breaks, frustrating Dayna with heavy top spin forehands and short backhand slices. With just one break between them, Dayna daringly hits a swinging forehand volley winner to reach game point at 3-5. She follows with a down-the-line backhand winner to hold.
But with a chance to break back for 5-5, Dayna misses a short overhead and Schmidt takes the first set 6-4. She's struggling to time her return and has yet to break Schmidt's unorthodox, spin serve.
With Dayna's power on display, Melissa is showing some finesse on the adjacent court. She follows a backhand slice into net for a forehand volley put-away in the first game. DeLorso's quick feet keep her in rallies, but Melissa's soft touch on a forehand lob earns her a break and a 5-4 lead. She serves out the set, 6-4.
"Every once in a while they luck out for a player whose parents really want them to pursue academics," Gordon says. "That would be a good thing for her because it would achieve her goal, and then let's take it from there.
"Dayna is a good kid. They are beautiful kids. I stay on them all the time and we fight a little bit when they're fooling around too much. But that being said, they are kids."
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About Joshua Rey
Joshua Rey was inspired by his experiences as a Sony Ericsson Open
ballboy to pursue a career in tennis. He has covered junior, college
and pro tennis for USTA.com, TennisWeek.com and The Miami Herald. As
an ESPN statistics associate, Rey researched stats and trends on
tennis players and storylines. He worked on-site for ESPN at Wimbledon
in 2009. E-mail Rey at