Kathi Eckel was on the court teaching the day she had her daughter, so you might say that Tara was born to play tennis.

The fifth grader at Lakewood Elementary is dominating her own age bracket these days, and is now competing in tournaments for girls 14 and under. Tara’s love of the game started at a young age.

“I was about two years old when I picked up a racquet one day and tried to hit during one of my mom’s lessons,” she explains. By age four, she was begging her mother to let her play in a tournament.

“I made a deal with her,” says Kathi. “I told her she could enter a tournament when she could get at least half her serves in.”

This is when Tara’s dedication to tennis first began to show. At the young age of four, Tara was diligent in her practice, often begging her mother to hit just a few balls with her between lessons. In no time at all, Tara was making her serves often enough that Kathi allowed her to enter her first competition.

“I was very clear with Tara that because she was so much younger than the kids she would be competing against, she should be prepared to lose, and that she could drop out at anytime during the tournament,” says Kathi.

Although she did lose, Tara played well in three sets in that first competition. And, she had caught the tennis bug.

These days, Tara puts in at least three hours every afternoon training at Royal Oaks Country Club, and travels to competitions roughly two weekends each month. She has been able to maintain her regular school schedule up to this point, but is trying very hard to convince her parents to switch to home schooling. Her goal for herself is clear.

“I’d like to go pro and play in Wimbledon someday,” says Tara. Tara’s parents, however, work hard to help her keep a good perspective. “Tara is really driving all this,” says Kathi. “Speaking as a coach, Tara is extremely disciplined for her age.” For example, she is adamant about her training routine. “Tara absolutely will not leave here until she’s hit her 200 serves, and finished her conditioning.”

Tara carries with her a vision statement she composed on the bus after a disappointing tournament. She is constantly re-evaluating herself, and demanding more from her training. After one recent loss, she asked her father to drive her straight to the club so she could work in more practice.

Says Kathi: “We work hard to try to provide Tara with some stability by not getting real high with a win, or real low with a loss.” In fact, Tara admits that the only time her mom chides her is when she gets mad at herself during a competition. “My mom tells me to remember the “Three F’s — Fun, Focus, and Footwork.”

Kathi and Tara both agree that the most important of these is fun. Says Tara, “If you’re not having fun, what’s the point?”

When dealing with Tara, Kathi is constantly challenged by her desire to keep her roles as coach and mother separate. Speaking as a coach and putting parenting concerns aside, Kathi believes that Tara’s talent is promising.

“Tara has the athletic ability,” she says, “but it’s her mental toughness that makes her unique.” In her 12 years of professional teaching, Kathi has seen many students who have incredible athletic ability ultimately fail in tennis.

“Really, I almost believe that having the desire to play, and the ethic to constantly work to improve is more important than natural ability,” she says. “Tennis is an extremely mental game, and if you’re not fully committed to it mentally, you’re not going to win.”

Tara is currently ranked first in the Little Mo’s division for her age in the Dallas area. She is nationally ranked in the 12-and-under-division, and is beginning to compete in nationals in the 14 and under division. Her sportsmanship on the court has earned her many awards, and she can often be seen hitting with kids much younger at the club.

“I want Tara to always give back to the sport,” says Kathi. Most importantly though, she wants Tara to have fun with tennis. Tara seems to agree. “I hate it when I play someone who is so focused on winning,” she says.

“My favorite thing about tennis is that it’s always fun playing, even if I’m losing.”