Commentary

Tennis phenom always looks ahead

Updated: November 2, 2009, 12:32 PM ET
By Brian A. Giuffra | ESPN RISE Magazine

The golden trophies sit on a shelf in a dark garage collecting dust. The gold medals are tucked away in dresser drawers. They have all been forgotten. Out of Joelle Kissell's sight, out of her mind, and that's just the way she wants it.

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ESPN RISE MagazineJoelle Kissell is the second ranked player in Pennsylvania.

Why display the trophies and dwell on the past, Kissell wonders. What's left to celebrate? For the Latrobe (Latrobe, Pa.) senior tennis star, the answer is nothing.

The USTA National Open Championships medal from 2006, when Kissell and her older sister, Michaela, won the doubles title, is somewhere in her garage. Her WPIAL singles gold medal from last year is stored in a drawer near her bed, Kissell thinks. The only award she has on display is her 2006 PIAA Class AAA doubles championship trophy, which stands on her dresser. And there's only one reason that's still in sight.

"I guess I just never got around to sticking it in a drawer," Kissell says with a laugh.

For Kissell, past accomplishments hold little value. Future conquests are her lone focus. And while she has enjoyed a glorious junior tennis career, her future looks even brighter than her past.

Kissell is ranked No. 42 in the Class of 2010 by TennisRecruting.net, No. 2 in Pennsylvania. She won the WPIAL singles title as a junior and finished third in the PIAA Class AAA state singles championship -- her lone loss of the season coming in the semifinals to eventual champ Tessa Lyons, now a senior at Strath Haven.

This year, Kissell has her sights set on the No. 1 spot.

"Right now, it's the best I've ever played," she says. "I feel like everything is starting to come together at once."

It's no wonder Kissell's game is in top form. She spent most of the summer trading shots with the No. 36-rated women's college player in the ITA preseason rankings: her sister Michaela.

Whenever Kissell wasn't on the road playing in national tournaments, she spent her days practicing with Michaela for hours on end. The sisters typically hit forehands and backhands to each other and practiced volleys, overhead slams and serves. But every once in a while, the games took on a more serious tone.

In those instances, whether they were playing a tiebreaker, a practice set or a full-fledged match, each sister went all out to beat the other. Stares across the net were common. Screams of "Come on" after a big shot flew back and forth. Fist pumps came out in tense situations, and all the games were close.

Although Kissell has yet to beat her older sister on the tennis court -- with the exception of one tiebreaker three years ago that Joelle loves to bring up to Michaela -- she has gained her sibling's unwavering respect.

"I don't think there's someone out there who can hit a better forehand, a better backhand and a better serve than her when she's on," says Michaela. "She's definitely playing the best so far. And if she keeps that up when she gets to college, she's only going to improve."

Kissell got a little taste of what it feels like to play at the next level when she competed in the International Tennis Federation Koser Jewelers Pro Circuit Tennis Challenge in May. She won three qualifying matches to gain entry into the main draw of the Challenger-level event, including a victory over touring pro Larisa Gorodetsky.

"It gave me a lot of confidence knowing that I could compete with those girls and not get pushed around," says Kissell, who lost 4-6, 5-7 to pro Dominika Dieskova in the first round of the main draw. "I had to play really well [in qualifiers] to win one round. So to win three was pretty amazing."

Kissell has always dreamed of playing professionally and says she's still interested in pursuing a tennis career after college. She and Michaela have even discussed going pro as a doubles team. But with the decision about turning pro still a few years away, Kissell wants to soak in her final high school season playing with family.

Yes, there is another Kissell.

Kissell's younger sister, Stacia, is a sophomore at Latrobe and plays second singles. She is an accomplished player herself, and when the two Kissells square off in practice, it's easy for onlookers to get caught up in their family competition.

"When Joelle and Stacia play, everybody wants to watch because it's some awesome tennis," says Latrobe coach Jon Mains. "Those two work each other so intensely in practice. They really go after it."

Kissell's desire to win every match is never clouded by her love of family. She's a killer on the court no matter who her opponent is. But Kissell also has a soft side, and it comes out during practice.

Go to any Latrobe practice and you might think there are two coaches on the team. While Mains is helping one girl work on forehands, Kissell will work with another on serving. She forgoes her own practice time, preferring instead to show her teammates proper form and technique. She even stays afterward to help anyone who's struggling with their game.

"She spends so much time working with the other girls," says Mains. "She wants to win as an individual, but she cares about what the team does, too."

Kissell is still looking for the right college team with which to continue her career, going on visits to N.C. State, College of Charleston, LSU, Marshall, Fresno State and Maryland. After college, she will make a decision on whether to turn pro or follow another path. But one thing's certain: Her past accomplishments will have no bearing on her future work habits.

"Everybody is working hard to get better and better, and I have to do the same," says Kissell. "You have to focus on the future. You can't get caught up on what you've done in the past. I never focus on the past."

Speaking of which, where is that gold medal?

Brian A. Giuffra covers high school sports for ESPN RISE Magazine.

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