Tennis is the sport for a lifetime.
That creed gets right to the heart of what is so great about our sport, and goes to show that there is no cookie-cutter approach to picking up the game.
Kaitlyn Fleckner is a perfect example of this notion as the West Islip senior’s tennis timeline differs from many of her peers.
“I started playing tennis in ninth grade,” said Fleckner. “My family and I moved to West Islip from Manhasset before my freshman year, and my parents pretty much told me that I had to do something so I said, ‘Okay, I’ll play tennis’. Prior to high school, I only played a little when I was younger at camp and for fun, so I tried out and made the Junior Varsity team.”
The commitment to playing tennis was an important one for Fleckner, who was navigating the difficult world of being a high school freshman while also adapting to a new school.
“I felt like when I first started playing, my confidence, and not just in tennis, was really low,” she recalls. “I didn’t really know who I was. I was just this little ninth grader in a new school, and I felt like tennis helped me to not only acclimate, but also develop as a person. I made a bunch of friends through tennis and made more friends through those friends. It’s weird to think about how different things could have been if I hadn’t decided to play tennis.”
Despite being new to the game, Fleckner quickly picked it up and rapidly improved to the point where she now plays first singles for the Varsity team. That quick progression does not come as a surprise to her first ever coach, Emilie Katz, who says starting tennis at that late of an age can actually work to her benefit.
“Kaitlyn has a huge forehand and good footwork. She needs work on her backhand which will help her overall consistency, but the progress she has made in the past three-and-a-half years is remarkable,” said Katz, who played Division I tennis. “I also became serious about tennis at a later age than most. I played casually and enjoyed many sports but going into ninth grade I was ready to put my full focus on tennis, and I couldn't get enough. Many other junior players were burning out or had already hit their peak, while my game was getting better daily, and I was eager to learn.”
The summer after she started playing, Fleckner headed down to Florida and trained at the academy of famed tennis coach Rick Macci which is when her game really started to flourish. Being in an academy-setting with other top players and under the tutelage of Macci, Fleckner took her game to the next level.
“I spent the summer down in Florida and I think that’s when my game really started to develop,” she recalls. “That’s when I really got serious about my tennis. Rick was such a great coach and person. He helped my serve a lot. When I first went to him, my serve was shaky and weak. He was always constructive when I had a lesson with him and always knew the right corrections to make.”
So just four years after she began playing tennis, Fleckner became a high-level varsity player with aspirations of playing collegiately. That can be attributed to her unwavering work ethic, something all of her coaches have raved about, including Macci.
“The best thing I can say is that she’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve been doing this for 40 years and worked with some of the best of the best,” he said. “As far as the work ethic and commitment to excellence, this girl is at the top of the food chain. The effort, the attitude to want to get better, is unsurpassed. And to me, that’s a starting point. Her work ethic and desire to get better is what jumped out at me first and foremost.”
That work ethic extends beyond her success on the tennis court, as Fleckner is also a top student in the classroom and does her part to give back to the community. In 2020, she led the charge to create a tennis program for children with autism, and brought that program to the 2020 New York Tennis Expo at Nassau Coliseum.
“My older brother is autistic, and I wanted to incorporate the two biggest aspects of my life which are my family and tennis,” said Fleckner. “It was a really cool event. My whole team came down and we taught the tennis basics. It was nice seeing the kids having so much fun. I know how much tennis has helped me in so many different ways, including dealing with life, so it was nice to be able to bring a smile to their faces. There were a bunch of different high school teams that came and helped out. I hope we can do it again in the future and I’m sure we will. It was a really great experience and I’m glad we were able to do it.”
Fleckner is headed off to college next year where she hopes to continue her charitable work.
“It’s definitely something I hope to continue in the future, and while I may be away at college, maybe I can start a program there, or join an organization that does something similar,” she says. “I’d be so grateful to be a part of anything like that.”
That college experience will take place at Washington University in St. Louis, the school that Fleckner was eager to attend and where she hopes to continue her tennis career.
“I am beyond excited to be a part of the Wash U community next year. I am still in shock that I got in. It’s been my dream school for quite some time now, so I am glad that it all worked out. I am looking forward to continuing my academic and athletic career at such a great institution,” said Fleckner. “I’m excited to be learning what I want to learn about, and be around people that are enthusiastic about what they’re learning. For tennis, I want to continue playing. I hope I can walk-on to the team at Wash U. I really love playing as part of a team, and I hope I can continue to do that.”
In order to do so, Fleckner will continue her training and work on improving her overall game which includes some specific fixes she is currently focusing on.
“My backhand is something I have been working on,” she said. “I reconnected with Emilie this year, and told her I wanted to work on backhands, and we literally hit only backhands for an hour during one session. It was to the point where I had blisters on my hand but I could see the improvement. I’m trying to incorporate that shot into my game more. My forehand is pretty good but there are little things with it that could be better. I’m also working on getting more spin on my second serve and being more accurate with those shots. So there are tiny things that need to be corrected with my shots, but the main focus has been my backhand.”
Tennis has been a major focal point of Fleckner’s life, and has helped her navigate her high school years. She got to compete one last time for West Islip this spring which was an ideal way to conclude her high school career.
“I think we were crossing our fingers that we’d be able to play, but in the beginning of the school year I didn’t think we were going to,” said Fleckner. “I’m obviously really glad it worked out and I was able to play one last year, and that I’m able to see everyone again and have that camaraderie with the team one last time. It’s a really special thing to be a part of, so I’m glad we got to do it one last time.”
Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for Long Island Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.