BRADENTON -- Ingrid Neel is crouched down in a catcher's position a few inches in front of the service line. She takes a glance back toward playing partner Sofia Kenin on her baseline and then fixes her eyes across the net. Once Kenin's serve whizzes by Neel's head, the IMG Academy senior is ready to uncoil and, if things go well, Kenin won't have to deal with a return.
As good as Neel is as a singles player -- and she is the No. 12 seed at the Eddie Herr International Junior Championships this week at IMG Academy, advancing to the second round after a 2-0 (6-0, 6-1) win against India's Nidhi Surapaneni on Tuesday -- she has a chance to be even better in doubles. Right now she is the No. 517 doubles player in the world and this summer she reached the second round of the US Open in New York.
"She has a chance to eventually be a Top 100 WTA doubles player within the near future, for sure," IMG coach Margie Zesinger said. "She can play with anyone."
Neel has become one of the best junior players in the world since coming to Bradenton for her freshman year with an unorthodox style that doesn't necessarily match her build or her age. The 17-year-old is only about 5 feet, 7 inches tall and likes to play at the net.
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Her serve, though crafty, isn't powerful enough to consistently induce weak returns. Her reach isn't long enough to bat back the most precise lob shots. In doubles, precise serving is more important than power. When a ball floats over her head, she has a teammate to cover up her other deficiency.
"I've been playing at the net since I started playing tennis," Neel said. "That's where I love being, so everything I do tries to translate into coming forward and finishing up there as much as possible. That just falls right into what you should be doing in doubles."
Neel started taking tennis seriously at age 6 and by the time she was in seventh grade she was playing for the boys varsity team at Mayo in Rochester, Minn. She was the Spartans' No. 3 singles player and played doubles for Mayo's state championship team.
"Mixed doubles," she joked. "It's not boys doubles."
Neel quickly outgrew the talent in Minnesota and came
with her family to Bradenton, where she's spent the past four years getting specialized training as an Ascender. Last month, she signed her National Letter of Intent to play college tennis at the University of Florida.
Neel's style is unique in today's tennis and most closely resembles John McEnroe's. She is extraordinarily confident around the net playing balls out of the air. She doesn't worry too much about her groundstrokes and her training at IMG reflects that. While most players will run drills on the base line, hitting forehands and backhands, Neel puts in extra work on her volleys.
The Ascenders have embraced Neel's unique skillset and it has made her one of the best players at the Eddie Herr International.
"Ingrid has probably the best court sense of any player I've ever worked with," Zesinger said. "She reads the ball early, and she has the ability to move forward and take the ball out of the air, which a lot of girls aren't comfortable with, so it's a very unique situation. She probably has one of the most unique game styles at the female level."
During the past two years, Neel has harnessed her talent and become a five-star prospect, according to TennisRecruiting.Net. She competed at the US Open and Wimbledon in singles as a junior, and reached the quarterfinals in doubles at Wimbledon as a junior this year.
In September, she got a chance on her biggest stage yet. With a pair of professional doubles wins in the Orlando and Gainesville 10Ks, Neel teamed up with Boca Raton's Tornado Alicia Black to win a wildcard into the US Open's main draw. They won one match before bowing out in the second round.
For the rest of this week, Neel will try for her biggest wins yet on her home court. She'll play in the second round of singles Wednesday at 7:45 a.m. against fellow American Claire Liu. She's the favorite once again and has a chance to make it even further.
But on the doubles court, where she's paired with No. 2 Kenin, she is a favorite. The duo beat Shelly Krolitzky and Lara Salden, 2-0 (6-0, 6-2), on Tuesday, and will face Olga Danilovic and Panna Udvardy on Wednesday around 11 a.m. for a spot in the quarterfinals.
"I do want to try to go into the pro ranks in doubles as well as singles," Neel said. "Singles is definitely where I want to be a specialist at. I like singles a lot more, but doubles -- I don't want to give that up any time soon."