DANVILLE — Rachael Lewis is all about tennis.
In the early days of her youthful exuberance, it wasn’t the game or even the competition that Lewis found appealing.
“To be honest, I liked tennis for the outfits that I got to wear when I played,” Lewis said. “I loved the little skirts and dresses that my mom would have for me.”
Tennis soon had a pull that went far beyond fashion.
It’s a game she plays and one she loves to discuss.
One of Lewis’ current classes at Danville High School — Intro to Teaching — required students to talk about a subject for 7-8 minutes.
“We had to speak from the heart about a passion we had and what it taught us,” Lewis said. “I talked about tennis, how I loved playing. When I’m mad, I want to play. When I’m sad, I want to play. When I’m happy, I want to play, and every emotion in between, I still wanted to play. It is my escape, and I always want to go play.
“Tennis always put me in a good mood and I looked forward to playing always. Tough practices were fun. There is something special about being out on the court. It’s magical to me. I would not be me if I didn’t play tennis.”
Teacher David Covey asked what tennis had taught Lewis.
The answer wasn’t something she could easily verbalize.
“I didn’t quite know,” Lewis said. “There’s just something about hitting that little yellow ball.”
Covey offered a suggestion and Lewis said his words, “hit me so hard.”
He told her: “‘It taught you how to love,’ she related, “and it really did. By loving tennis so much and putting myself fully into it, I can now love other things and try my hardest with those as well.”
Surrounded by good people
Like most 5-year-olds learning to swing a racquet, Lewis said, “I don’t remember being the best as a child, so I started taking lessons.”
Kathy Houpt was her first tutor (and later helped coach the Vikings when Lewis was a sophomore). Cathy and Scott Simpson were other instructors. The Simpsons coached her, too, as a freshman at Danville while Mark Bacys has handled those duties the past three seasons, with assistance from Covey for two years.
Those coaches developed not only the player, but also an interest in the sport unlike what Lewis found in her other endeavors.
“My parents put me in every sport possible,” Lewis said. “I played basketball a couple of years. I was goalie during the summer for my soccer team. I swam for our country club ‘Dolphins’ for a while. I played softball three years at North Ridge and was the starting pitcher.
“I can also remember not wanting to practice for all of the other activities that I participated in, but tennis never got boring. I would love practice and it wasn’t something my parents made me do. It was something I wanted to do. Tennis is No. 1 on my list of passions.”
It has been a focal point of her summers for 12 years.
“I am so thankful my parents allowed me to take lessons, because without them, I know I would not be the player I am today,” Lewis said.
The player she is today is the area’s best. Lewis was atop Danville’s singles ladder all four years and earned three successive state berths in doubles with her sister, Becca, a junior.
“What makes Rachael special is her ability to lead in a humble way, her work ethic, her bond with her teammates, her bond with her family, her ‘let’s-have-fun attitude’ and her desire to do what is right,” Bacys said.
Lewis headlines The News-Gazette team as Area Player of the Year.
A strong desire to win
Lewis remembers a conversation with an area coach, Evan Dorner (who teaches at the Atkins Tennis Center), that helped illustrate what enabled her to achieve at a high level.
“He said, ‘your forehands are decent, your volleys are good, your backhands are OK and your serve is alright,’” Lewis recalled. “You don’t have a stroke that is amazing.’”
She wasn’t happy with the analysis, adding, “I was in shock and starting to get a little mad until he went on to say, ‘It is your mental game that is amazing. You want to win, so you walk on the court and win.’ ”
In her subsequent self-evaluation, Lewis saw the validity in the comments from a person she credits for “getting me ready for the last two years of my high school tennis career.”
Added Lewis: “I worked hard on my strokes to make them amazing, but he was right. I played girls that had way better strokes, but I managed to find a way to win. ‘Who wants to win more?’ I would ask myself in the middle of matches. I knew for a fact it was me.”
Siblings on the same page
There is no sibling rivalry, just sibling friendship, when sisters Rachael and Becca Lewis join forces in doubles. They were IHSA state qualifiers three consecutive years.
“Becca is the perfect doubles partner for me,” Rachael Lewis said. “Becca and I just get each other. We both have the same idea of how points should go and the majority of the time, she would give me the signal that I was thinking in my head.
“Becca and I had something more than most doubles teams. We were always on the same page and so comfortable with each other that when other teams were talking over strategies, Becca and I already knew what we were going to do without saying a word to each other.”
They were partners and that bond was inseparable. Becca suffered a foot injury and missed nearly six weeks of the season. She put herself in the lineup for the postseason run.
“She played with a broken foot at state because she didn’t want to let me down,” Rachael Lewis said. “Literally, she would take her boot off, play a match, walk back off the court and put her boot right back on. She is very brave and very loving, and always makes me laugh.
“Tennis has definitely brought us closer. We used to get into little arguments, but I cannot remember the last time we have. When we drove to practice each day, we would turn on the radio and sing at the top of our lungs, laughing the whole time. Even on the court, we would be cracking jokes and laughing.”
The end of the season didn’t put an end to the sisters’ time together.
“Usually after the season, Becca hangs with her friends and I hang with mine,” Rachael Lewis said, “but we have found a way to merge our friends’ group and now every weekend, Becca and I are hanging out with each other and all of our friends. I was so lucky to have a partner like her.”
Life after high school
Rachael Lewis isn’t so consumed about tennis that she forsakes all else.
“I am very interested in academics,” she said. “I love going to school each day.”
The “each day” reference is not a misnomer. Lewis hasn’t been absent during a school day since fourth grade and added, “I don’t plan on missing one anytime soon.”
She is a member of the Danville Madrigals, an a capella singing group that dresses up and sings Renaissance songs during the Christmas season. She is also president of the school’s coed show choir.
Lewis visited about a dozen Midwestern universities with her father, Ron, and said, “The only college that caught my attention was Butler University (in Indianapolis).” She hopes to find out later this week if she has been accepted but hasn’t yet decided whether to continue in tennis.
She hopes to pursue a major in international business with a minor in Spanish, although thanks to Covey’s intro to teaching class, Lewis is considering a different path.
“I can see myself being a teacher,” she said.
Whatever her career path, tennis has been a guiding force.
“Tennis has given me a work ethic that I wouldn’t have had if I had never played,” she said. “When playing tennis, I had to be focused the entire match. Now I notice myself being more focused during school and even after school. The first thing I do when I get home is my homework and I cannot relax until it’s done.”
Her rank as Danville’s top tennis player and her positioning as one of the school’s seniors academically are two elements of a three-part picture.
“She has established a culture of team and leadership which will benefit our program for years to come,” Bacys said. “I got compliments each weekend we played from other coaches about her and how well she carried herself on the court win or lose. She competed as hard as she could and would never show signs of frustration or anything negative.”
Getting to know Rachael Lewis
Why she’s Player of the Year: Teamed up with Taylor Ellis to win doubles at the Big 12 Conference meet. Then at sectionals, after sister Becca returned from a broken foot, placed first in doubles to secure a third consecutive state meet berth as the sisters became three-time sectional champions.
Season highlights: Winning two matches in the main draw at state. Playing No. 1 singles for the fourth consecutive year and being on the No. 1 doubles team for the fourth year in a row. Teaming up with two partners for a 29-13 doubles mark, raising varsity career doubles mark to 81-36. Five of those wins came in state tournament matches.
A few of my favorites: Hyundai Sonata ... Last text to Michael Vascura ... Role model, my mother, Sue. She is the best mother possible ... Mumford and Sons ... Favorite class, intro to teaching ... Favorite athlete, Roger Federer ... Sara Bareilles ... Taco Bell ... First job, haven’t had one. My parents told me keeping straight A’s and playing tennis are my jobs, and they are great jobs to have ... In 10 years, I plan to be graduated from Butler and have a career that I love ... Danville High School is incredible. I have the best teachers and would never want to go anywhere else.
About Lewis: “To me, the most impressive thing was watching her grow as a young lady, which as she grew off the court really helped her tennis. Rachael really matured as a person over the last year. She also became calm and businesslike as she approached everything in her life. This really helped her tennis. On the court, she was the ultimate competitor and team leader. She approached each match with a laserlike focus. She turned into the ultimate competitor, sportsman and leader for us this year. Winning or losing a match, she had the same attitude on the court, which was ‘I am going to give all I have for this match and see what happens.’ I can’t tell you how many coaches and parents of the girls she was playing during the year said how much they enjoyed watching her play, compete and behave on the court. She saw things with clarity this year. She knew when the moment was big, when someone on the team was struggling and needed her, how to handle a moment on the court when she got tense. She has grown into one of the most amazing young ladies I have had the pleasure of coaching.” — Danville coach Mark Bacys
Girls’ Players of the Year
2013 Rachael Lewis Danville
2012 Allison Hansen Centennial
2011 Madie Baillon St. Thomas More
2010 Madie Baillon St. Thomas More
2009 Katarina Marjanovic Urbana
2008 Katarina Marjanovic Urbana
2007 Katarina Marjanovic Urbana
2006 Lindsey Hallett Champaign Central
2005 Lindsey Hallett Champaign Central
2004 Kenisha Webb Urbana
Girls’ Coaches of the Year
2013 Mark Bacys Danville
2012 Mark Bacys Danville
2011 Mark Bacys Danville
All-Area Honorable Mention
Carson Arends GCMS Sr.
Teresa Boerma Centennial Jr.
Abby Demlow St. Thomas More Sr.
Cheyenne Denoyer Watseka Sr.
Taylor Ellis Danville Jr.
Abby Fischer Watseka Jr.
Brenda Gonzalez Champaign Central So.
Jacklyn Gunn Centennial So.
Anne Johnson Watseka Jr.
Shirley Keigher GCMS Sr.
Sophie Kim Centennial Jr.
Maddie King St. Thomas More So.
Rebecca Lewis Danville Jr.
Haley Loeffler Watseka Jr.
Anna Lundquist Mahomet-Seymour So.
Lauren Neitzel Centennial So.
Gressa Olson Centennial Fr.
Willa Olson Centennial Fr.
Neha Patel Danville Sr.
Grace Pavlak Watseka Fr.
Sara Rice Mahomet-Seymour Jr.
Amy Shah Danville Sr.
Meaghan Sharp GCMS Sr.
Clare Stanhope Champaign Central Sr.
Amanda Vadeboncoeur Danville Jr.
Kelly Wright Champaign Central So.
Final N-G rankings
1. Danville Three sectional titles in a row
2. Centennial Area’s best freshmen talent
3. Watseka Competitive against larger schools
4. Cham. Central Youthful team improved immensely
5. Mahomet-Seymour Bulldogs seek to expand program
6. GCMS Roster size (32) area’s best
7. St. Thomas More Eight of 11 were seniors
8. Urbana Started with back-to-back dual meet wins
9. Rantoul With experience, Eagles gain competitiveness