Commentary

Carlton, Embree navigating the world of junior tennis

Updated: May 8, 2009, 1:43 PM ET
By Lucas O'Neill | ESPN RISE Magazine

Lauren Embree and Tripper Carleton are two of the best high school tennis players in the country. Sort of.

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ESPN RISE MagazineCover duo Tripper Carleton and Lauren Embree are enjoying the hectic world of pro tennis.

Like many elite tennis players their age, neither Embree nor Carleton is attending an actual high school this year. They have each spent what amounts to their senior year training, playing pro tournaments and completing their studies independently.

It's a charmed existence: traveling the world, sleeping late, spending all day in the sun. But it can also be hectic, grueling, expensive and stressful. Embree, of Marco Island, is the nation's top girls' tennis player. She is currently No. 1 in the USTA Girls' 18s division and No. 9 in the world in the ITF junior rankings. She will head to the University of Florida in June to get a jump on her college career.

Frank Carleton III Favorites

  • TV Show: "Summer Heights High"
  • Movie: "The Dark Knight"
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  • Athlete: Michael Phelps

Frank "Tripper" Carleton III, of Naples, has been among the top players in his division throughout his teenage years and is currently rated No. 1 in Florida and No. 10 in the nation among seniors by TennisRecruiting.net. He plans to join his brother, Reid, one of the nation's top collegiate players, at Duke in the fall.

Aside from their lofty status on the junior tennis circuit, Embree and Carleton have a lot in common: both represented Naples-area high schools and took home state championships; both were trained by their fathers; both were chosen to represent the United States at the 2007 Junior Davis Cup/Federation Cup in Reggio Emilia, Italy, where they became friends; and both understand the unique pleasures and pressures that accompany life as a top tennis player.

Embree attended Lely High full time as a freshman and sophomore and part time last year. She loved representing her high school, even if the competition was rarely up to her level. Embree went 16-0 as a freshman, missing the district tournament that would have qualified her for states because she was playing in the prestigious Easter Bowl. She was 24-0 as a sophomore and won Class 2A state titles in singles and doubles.

"Like a golfer, she had every club in her bag that she could pull out and make the shot with it," says Lely coach Kevin Smith, who also coached Embree's older brother, Keith, now a junior on the Florida State tennis team. Embree always expected to have a regular high school existence, and as late as the fall she thought she'd at least experience the senior trifecta of homecoming, prom and graduation. She eventually decided to devote herself more fully to tennis, largely to prepare for college. She played the ITF circuit in the fall and advanced this winter to the Round of 16 at the Junior Australian Open.

Lauren Embree Favorites

  • TV Show: "The Hills"
  • Movie: "Taken"
  • Actor: Brad Pitt
  • Actress: Kate Hudson

This spring, she has been training in Miami during the week and heading home or to various tournaments on weekends. And after taking part in the Junior French Open in late May, Embree plans to start taking classes at Florida and begin training with the Gators. In the past year, Embree has not only improved her game and fitness but also learned a lot about herself. Everything from doing laundry to booking practice courts to coordinating travel arrangements is on her now. "I'm very independent," she says. "I've been away from my parents for so long, college won't be so much of a change for me."

Of course, her parents still feel the burden. Aside from missing their daughter, they shell out big money for her to compete in various tournaments. They do it gladly, but not easily. "We never took a vacation  all the vacations were tennis tournaments," says her mother, Nancy. "That was our life. People thought we were crazy, but we loved doing it."

That's the thing with the junior circuit: For all but the richest of families, it is a struggle to keep up. Thankfully, there is a community of support. "The generosity of other families that took my kids in was amazing," says Carleton's father, Frank, who trained his two sons and his daughter, Jackie, an All-American at UCLA and Duke. "They couldn't have done what they did without host families. It was just fabulous to run across people like that."

After growing up about 10 miles outside of Philadelphia, Tripper and his family moved to Florida when he was 14. He played only one year of high school tennis, joining forces with Reid to take home the Class 3A doubles title and help lead Barron Collier to its third consecutive team state championship in 2007.

"Those two were a force, man. Those two could not be touched," says Barron Collier coach Eric Manring. "They would go out there and these guys were so intimidating. [Opponents] were hiding under the net so they wouldn't get hit with balls." Probably wise to do so. During a tournament in Kalamazoo, Mich., Carleton hit an opponent so hard with a shot that the player had to retire from the match. A standout baseball player when he was younger, Carleton "doesn't go for singles on the tennis court," according to his father.

As a junior, Carleton earned K-Swiss All-American honors and was invited to attend the USTA National Training Academy in its inaugural year. He spent this past fall training with USC-bound buddy JT Sundling in California and is now focused on finishing his academic requirements.

"It's worked out well because I have a lot of freedom with my work, and I can do it at my own pace and when I'm on the road," Carleton says. Like Embree, Carleton has learned to be independent and juggle the myriad stresses and responsibilities that accompany the constant travel, as well as the expectations that go with the territory. "It's a crazy lifestyle," Carleton's dad says. "It's not for everybody. It's very demanding  physically with injuries, emotionally with mental toughness, and financially. Those three things can really take a toll on you as a junior tennis player."

But Embree and Carleton may be in position to handle it better than most. Tennis was not forced on them, they say, so they have a genuine love for it. Mike Agassi and Richard Williams their parents were not. And let's be honest: Life could get a lot worse than having to travel to exotic locales to play tennis. "I sometimes think, 'Do you even know how lucky you are?'" Embree's mom says with a laugh.

Lucas O'Neill covers high school sports for ESPN RISE Magazine.