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Citrus' Cornell having a perfect time

Lauren Cornell says she thinks that years down the road she might regret not being a tennis brat _ spending six hours a day in practice, watching her diet, driving 45 minutes a day to a private coach, traveling at breakneck pace to junior tournaments.

Then again, she might not.

"I have a lot of fun now," Cornell said.

There must be something to be said for having fun, then. The Citrus sophomore hardly seems affected by leaving her coach in Leesburg two years ago for a more leisurely lifestyle and relaxed approach to the game. She was 12-0 last season at No. 1 singles, not losing until the district semifinals. And this season she has started 7-0, making her a perfect 19-0 in her high school regular-season career.

"It's been a real surprise," Cornell said Monday between practice sets at the Inverness Golf and Country Club.

Last year, Cornell inherited the No. 1 spot from Pryia Balakirshnan, which was her first surprise. Her second surprise was her perfect record. Although private tutoring laid a strong foundation of forehands and backhands, Cornell hadn't played tennis in months when spring practice started.

"I played soccer and didn't play any tennis the whole soccer season," Cornell said. "I don't know how I won."

Coach Janet Mulligan does. She says Cornell did it with a strong work ethic, solid strokes and a competitive desire second to none on the team.

And this year, Mulligan said, Cornell is even better.

"The change from last year to this year I would attribute to the amount of matches she played (in the off-season)," Mulligan said. "She's definitely stronger, her strokes are more powerful, and she's definitely got more of a complete game."

As a result, Cornell is finding the going easier. A good thing? Not quite. Mulligan said Cornell's easy wins have been disappointing.

"Last year she had a couple of tests in some close matches and had to really dig deep," Mulligan said. "I was very impressed with the way she played. So far this year her wins have all been 0 and 0 or 1 and 1. She's not satisfied even with the 0 and 0 wins. She needs a challenge."

Cornell probably will have to wait until the district tournament. Until then, keeping her streak alive shouldn't be a problem.

Cornell has played tennis much longer than most of her teammates and foes. She started at the age of 9, and for years she practiced at clubs with tennis pros.

After moving to Inverness before her eighth-grade year, however, Cornell began to tire of the 45-minute drives back to Leesburg for lessons. And with high school on the horizon, she wasn't ready to surrender all the things that come with it _ friends, parties, hanging out, weekends.

"I wanted to be (a full-time tennis player) at one point," said Cornell, who favors the baseline but is growing more comfortable with her net attack. "But then I knew I wouldn't be able to do a lot of the things I wanted to do. It was too much. I have enough pressures with school and stuff. I want to be able to hang out with my friends, and I knew that'd get in the way."

Cornell also knew that most state-ranked, up-and-coming players eschew the high school game because it doesn't provide the same level of training. She didn't want to be like that. "I've seen those people, and they don't have a life," she said. "That's crazy."

Do not mistake Cornell's new approach as one lacking seriousness and dedication. She is at every practice. She is getting better. And she doesn't like to lose.

"I get mad easy," Cornell said. "I guess I want to win pretty bad. I put a lot of pressure on myself.

"I feel like my strokes are better this year, and I feel like I'm smarter. My strokes are a lot smoother, I guess."

Cornell is the only non-senior among the top-five players at Citrus. She isn't your typical rah-rah No. 1 player, even if her teammates count on her each match for a point.

"She leads with her work ethic," Mulligan said. "And she raises the level of everybody. Everyone watches her and tries to emulate her."

Instead of being vocal, Cornell is laid back and prone to a sharing a syrupy chuckle with doubles partner Katie St. Clair. She is not overbearing or cocky. And she is having fun.

Without any regrets.

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