Lily serves up healthy diet of tennis success

Last updated 16:33 07/12/2012
Lily O'Fagen
Emma Allen

Lily O’Fagan: Always enjoys playing higher-ranked people. ‘‘I’ve learnt a lot of different game styles, not just hitting from the baseline. It makes you mentally stronger, too.’’

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Lily O'Fagan is a rare talent.

At just 14, the year 10 Marlborough Girls' College student has packed more success into seven years of tennis than many could hope to achieve in their careers.

The list of Lily's accolades is long - very long.

The softly spoken, pint-sized star became the only Marlborough junior to reach the final of a national championships when she was runner-up in the 12s nationals at the start of last year and was the youngest player to represent Marlborough at senior level, aged just 12, when she made her Lucas Cup debut against Nelson in February 2011. She has now beaten Nelson's No 1 female player twice in a row.

On top of that, Lily has been in the last two premier interclub-winning teams, going unbeaten last season, and was the Marlborough Tennis Association's senior residential champ in the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons. She has also won the association's Sportsperson of the Year award three times on the trot.

Given all this success, it should hardly come as a surprise that last month Lily was named as the fourth member and non-travelling reserve for the New Zealand 14-and-under team. She filled the same role for the New Zealand 12-and-under team in December 2010.

With almost all her rivals hailing from bigger and better-resourced centres, making those teams out of a smaller province such as Marlborough was no mean feat, and Lily admits both selections came unexpectedly.

While national recognition is highly satisfying, Lily reckons her performance at 12s nationals and confirming her status as the best female player in Marlborough were also right up there among her career highlights.

"Runner-up at 12s nationals, that was pretty hard. It was a big field and I played quite a lot of the Canterbury girls who I hadn't beaten. The Marlborough residential senior singles as well. I've won the last two . . . It's always a bit of an honour to win that."

Born and raised in Blenheim, Lily first played tennis in 2007, aged 7, when a friend asked if she would fill in for their St Mary's Primary School team. It was not long before she began to have some success.

She recalls her first significant victory fondly, winning the 10-and-under singles at the Canterbury Junior Open in October 2008.

Since then the trophies have been rolling in. The first of many Marlborough Junior Open titles came early in 2009 and from there Lily has played three seasons for the Marlborough under-18 Blair Cup team and four in both the Marlborough under-14 Malcolm Shield side and Tasman junior team.

Like all high-achieving athletes, her success has required a huge amount of commitment and sacrifice.

Being based in Blenheim has meant countless trips to Nelson, Christchurch and Wellington over the past four years. There simply has not been the intensity or quality of competition in Marlborough for Lily to keep up with her rivals.

For the past two seasons she has travelled across Cook Strait and back during summer to play for Titahi Bay in Wellington's premier one division. There has also been hours and hours of hitting on the practice court and when Lily describes her weekly tennis schedule, it is not hard to see why see is doing well.

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"Normally it's one hour on Monday, three hours on Tuesday and on Wednesday it's interclub and that's probably2 hours. Thursday is three hours and Friday is 1 and Saturday is interclub in Wellington ,which is usually another 2 ."

Being ahead of players her own age has meant Lily has played a lot of older and more experienced rivals, something she believes has been key to her success.

"It is always a bit of a challenge, but it is something I look forward to. I just enjoy playing people like that and people ranked higher than me because you can really have a crack.

"I've learnt a lot of different game styles, not just hitting from the baseline. It makes you mentally stronger, too."

The contribution of coach John Gardiner and a llot of family support are the other things Lily mentions as being important.

Coming from a sporting family, there has always been plenty of support on that front. Her father, Paul, is a former hooker for the Marlborough Red Devils rugby side, while her mother, Jill, was a handy netballer. Older sisters Tess (surf-lifesaving) and Ellie (basketball and netball) are both talented and competitive.

Lily, who has also represented Marlborough in touch and Marlborough Girls' College in basketball and cross-country, does well at school with PE and science - her favourite subjects.

Away from tennis and school, she enjoys chilling out at home and the odd game of table-tennis against her father, while sister Ellie has just started teaching her to play the guitar.

The chords may have to wait though as it's full steam ahead with training as her next major goal, the 14s nationals early next month, draws close.

A top-four placing is the aim and after that she hopes to retain her place in the top 10 players in the country at age-group level. Beyond that, Lily has a university scholarship in the United States or Europe in her sights, and maybe even a pro ranking one day.

Despite the long hours of training, playing and travelling, this dedicated young sportswoman's drive is undiminished.

"It is just the little goals I've set, and because I enjoy it. I'm just really motivated and self-driven to do the best I can."

- The Marlborough Express

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