COLUMBIA — Last Saturday against Texas, Missouri freshman tennis player Maureen Modesto stepped onto the No. 4 singles court to find Texas freshman Maggie Mello waiting for her.
Modesto had been expecting to play Caroline Larsson, the Longhorns’ usual No. 4, not Mello, the girl from Modesto’s juniors tournaments that was ranked No. 25 in the USTA Girls’ 18 rankings and No. 1 in Southern California.
Modesto was nervous, but like she always did in her best matches, she stayed calm and positive. She handed Mello a hasty 6-4, 6-2 defeat.
Mello was devastated and sat at her bench next to the court in disbelief long after her match was over, scarcely moving.
The victory, which Modesto said was one of her biggest so far, gave Modesto her 22nd win of the year, which ranks No. 14 on the list of singles wins in a season at Missouri. The team has four matches left on its schedule this season.
What makes Modesto special, however, is not beating opponents that are supposed to be better than her, but at 5 feet 1-inch tall, she’s doing it against players much bigger than her. Mello is listed at 5 feet 9 inches.
But overcoming her height is only one aspect of Modesto’s tennis career, which began with a present she received from her parents on her fourth birthday. Her parents, both high school tennis coaches at Munster High School in Modesto’s hometown of Highland, Ind., gave her tennis lessons.
She began to play seriously when she was 8, but from then until she was 12 it was mostly her father’s influence that kept her working hard at tennis. Like other girls her age, she wanted to do other things once in a while instead of playing tennis for three hours each day.
Eventually, once she began to play juniors tournaments, Modesto learned on her own to love the competition of the sport and the payoff that hard work can accomplish.
With the help of her father’s conditioning, she learned how to fight past her size disadvantage and utilize a specific style of play.
Modesto’s technique can be described as “retriever style,” which means her focus is more defensive and on keeping the ball in play and outlasting opponents. She says that for her, it’s all about endurance.
“I just try and run down everything,” Modesto said. “At my size I have to walk three steps for every one that some people do.”
Modesto said she will never forget a match two or three years ago with a taller player in a juniors tournament. After splitting the first two sets, Modesto overheard the girl complain to her parents, “How am I losing to a girl this small?”
Modesto took that as a challenge and won in the final set.
Modesto finds that people’s assumptions about her size can be used as fuel to help her play better. She said she enjoys it.
“It actually pumps me up more,” she said. “I like the fact that people look at me and think ‘I’m going to beat this girl because she’s like a little kid.’”
Since arriving at Missouri last fall, and especially of late, Modesto had been working hard to do what she can to make herself more competitive against taller, stronger players. She began weight training for the first time and will often practice with the coaches hitting her the ball harder than usual.
Size was also one of the things that kept Modesto in tennis. She says her height, in addition to her commitment to tennis, stopped her from really pursuing sports like basketball and volleyball.
“I knew I’d never have an opportunity,” Modesto said.
But tennis didn’t just become Modesto’s sport by default. She said that she loves it because it is a lifetime sport and it is something she can play with her entire family.
Modesto said one of the ways she has grown the most as a Tiger is by becoming more independent.
“I’ve always been dependent on my family,” Modesto said. “It’s a major change not playing in front of my parents and being with my parents.”
Modesto said the tennis team is her family away from home. She even said that coach Blake Starkey reminds her a bit of her dad because he deeply cares about the team and has a positive attitude. She said that it made things easier in transitioning from life in Indiana to life in Missouri.
After the match against Texas, Starkey summed up Modesto’s performance.
“That girl plays bigger than her body,” he said. “She’s a warrior.”