Jacobs’ Thomas Nelson found himself matched up against a familiar opponent in the Class 2A state boys tennis tournament fifth-place match: teammate Kyle McNally.
After McNally, a sophomore, beat Nelson, a junior, in their sectional championship match a week earlier, it was Nelson who came out on top on the final day of the high school season, a 6-4, 6-1 winner to become the Golden Eagles’ highest-placing state finisher in team history.
Nelson and McNally, who finished sixth in his state debut, became the only two Jacobs’ boys tennis players to medal at the state tournament – a tremendous feat given the Eagles’ dominance in the local tennis scene.
Jacobs also had its best state finish in team history, tying for fourth place. In addition to Nelson and McNally, the Eagles also had state qualifiers with doubles pairings of John Kaiser and Justin Cunningham and Jed Sia and Justin Brzeski. Both of those teams went 2-2 at state.
Nelson, the Fox Valley Conference No. 1 singles champion, already has his sights set on next year’s state tournament, where he would like to make another run for a state championship and a top-three team finish.
For his record-breaking season, Nelson is the 2021 Northwest Herald Boys Tennis Player of the Year, as chosen by the sports staff with input from area coaches. Nelson spoke to sports writer Alex Kantecki about his favorite moments from junior year, what it was like playing against McNally for a state medal, his playing style and more.
What was your favorite match from this season?
Nelson: When I beat Kyle in the fifth-place match, just because I had played him before in the sectional tournament and lost. All of our coaches were on court, and everyone was there. It was a fun experience.
What was it like playing against Kyle?
Nelson: It’s always a challenge playing against Kyle. You always got to push yourself to make sure you’re not getting complacent. ... I kind of treated it like any other match except our coaches were both on court. Other than that, I just played my game and tried to win.
What makes Kyle a challenging player?
Nelson: We kind of both know what we have to do against each other. Since he’s seen me play so much, he knows how to beat me. And since I’ve seen him so much I know how to beat him. You can’t really play your game the same. You’ve got to mix it up. He might be small, but he hits the crap out of the ball. I really have to be on my game.
Your team had its best finish in state history. What did it mean to accomplish that?
Nelson: It was really exciting, but we know that we can do better. We’re already looking forward to next year and finally bringing home one of the top three trophies.
How did you get into tennis?
Nelson: My uncle was a tennis coach, so he would come over and we would play some tennis. It was kind of ingrained in the family. I didn’t really start playing seriously until I was 11 or 12. Before that, I would hit at the park once in awhile, but I wasn’t playing everyday. When I was 12 years old, I started playing five, six, seven times a week and playing weekend tournaments. I quit soccer and focused all my time on tennis.
Describe your playing style for me.
Nelson: Since I’m 6-foot-5, I hit big serves and I look for opportunities to attack. I’m still working on that. Since I’m so tall, I need to focus on my aggressiveness. I don’t want long points, because shorter players have more of an advantage when it comes to moving around.
Who is your favorite professional sports team?
Nelson: Chicago Bulls.
Where would be your ideal vacation?
Nelson: Either Tokyo or Singapore. Asia is always one step ahead on technology. I’d like to see the crazy stuff that goes on there.
Who is your funniest teammate?
Nelson: I would say [junior] Justin Brzeski,. He plays tennis but you can tell he’s also really in it for social. He’s always cracking jokes. I love playing doubles with him. It’s always entertaining. We’re 2-0 in doubles. It’s always fun on the court with him. He’s always looking to have a good time. Feeding off that energy is always very fun.
If you could go to one of the Grand Slam tournaments, which one would you choose?
Nelson: Australian Open. Just because Australia seems like a really cool place. They get to play all of their matches outside. It doesn’t really rain a lot there. The energy just seems really really exciting. It’s the one I always said I wanted to go to.
Who is your favorite tennis player of all time?
Nelson: The Australian Open in 2021, there was this Russian player who got all the way to the semifinal. His name is Aslan Karatsev. Before that he was top 200 [ATP tour ranking] and never had won a match on tour. He started balling out and now he’s No. 24 in the world. I just love the Cinderella story. I like his game style, and I like him as a person. I’m looking forward to watching him at Wimbledon.
Who is your biggest hero?
Nelson: I would say Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan. They’re trying to create good opportunities for people. Kobe dying was really heartbreaking. They’re just cool guys and I like what they stand for.
What’s your favorite class in school?
Nelson: If you would have asked me two years ago, I would have said computer science. Now, it’s psychology. I like being able to perform psychological experiments on my little siblings.
What are three of your favorite movies?
Nelson: “Kung Fu Panda,” “Jumanji” and “Thor: Ragnarok”
What are you scared of?
Nelson: Heights ... and also, bugs.
What are you looking forward to most about your senior year?
Nelson: Just getting back out there and competing again. It would be really cool to win a state title. I know a lot of people above me are graduating and there aren’t many kids coming up. I’m going to have a really good chance of winning a state title next year.