CINCINNATI — Sierra Nellessen had no clue that she’d just made history.
Until she was receiving her awards.
“I had no idea actually,” Nellessen said. “She said, ‘We’ve never had a female win,’ and I was kind of surprised. I knew I was the only girl out there, but I figured a girl had won at some point.”
Nellessen, a 2013 Tippecanoe High School graduate who went on to play Division I collegiate tennis at Northern Kentucky University, competed in the Western & Southern/ICYO Pro-am in August, eventually teaming up with professional doubles specialist Jamie Murray to win the tournament — becoming the first woman to ever do so in the process.
The tournament, which went on during the week of the Western & Southern Open in Mason, paired professionals and amateurs in a round-robin format for the opening rounds before pairing the four semifinalist amateurs with one pro. And for Nellessen, the opportunity to play came thanks to her college coach, and aside from one female pro, she was the only woman playing in the tournament.
“It’s a pro-am hosted by Inner City Youth Opportunities. You usually have to pay to get in, but I was sponsored,” Nellessen said. “My coach (Northern Kentucky University coach Brian Nester), his friend that usually plays in it, he gives my coach two spots to fill, and Brian put two NKU players in it last year and this year. I was the only girl amateur in it, but there was about 15-20 other men who were in it ranging from people who just love tennis to other tennis professionals like myself to former college players, and you go out there and you’re surprised by who the pros are. This year there was Raluca Olaru, a female pro on the doubles circuit from Romania, and Jamie Murray and his partner Bruno Soares.
“You’re on the court with one pro playing doubles, and you play a nine-point tiebreaker and then rotate partners, and you play four different tiebreaks against each person, and then you add up your points and keep individual scoring, so you kind of have to win a lot of your matches.
“And once you get to the semifinals, you’re paired with a pro full-time — at this point, it was just the men’s pros that were left, and I got paired with Jamie Murray. Actually, I got to pick, and I picked him, and I played with him against his partner. At that point, it was me and three other ams, and we were playing 12-point tiebreaks. I won my semifinal match with Jamie, and then I won another match in the finals with Jamie. We ended up winning against his partner and the final am.”
With the winning out of the way, that was when Nellessen discovered that she’d made tournament history. And even though it came seemingly out of nowhere, it affected her all the same.
“I got a plaque, and we got to take our pictures with the pros, I won a Mercedes Benz for the weekend — Mercedes sponsors the tournament — and I also a grab bag filled with tennis clothes from the tournament,” Nellessen said. “She said, ‘I’m ashamed to say this. We’ve never had a female win this tournament in its 25 years, so we only have men’s clothing in the grab bag. We’ll have to mail you female stuff.’ It was really, really cool.
“I was really honored. It was a cool experience. My sponsor was really proud, so I feel like I did him proud.”
That wasn’t even the end of the weekend for Nellessen.
“Plus I went to see them play (in the Western & Southern Open tournament),” she said. “I waited till the very end, and they came up to greet their fans. I was thinking, ‘Please recognize me,’ and Jamie was like, ‘Hey, doubles partner! What’s up?’ And Bruno came up and told me that our match gave them good luck — they ended up winning the Western & Southern Open — which was really cool. I was starstruck, and they were super, super nice and humble.”
For Nellessen, it was yet another high point in a lengthy tennis career that won’t ever end — at least if she has anything to say about it.
“I graduated from NKU in 2017, and college tennis was everything I wanted it to be,” Nellessen said. “My favorite part was the competing — I love competing, and that’s probably what I miss most. As soon as I graduated, I became a full-time tennis professional — a coach — at Mercy Healthplex. I was like, ‘I don’t really know who I am without tennis,’ so coaching has been my outlet to get my tennis fix.”
She is currently a tennis pro at The Club at Harper’s Point, where she continues to get that fix while teaching the next generation of tennis players.
“My favorite part about it is inspiring people to love the game as much as I do,” Nellessen said. “I started when I was 5 at Schroeder’s Tennis Center, and I’ve played ever since then. The pro that led the peewee lessons made me love it so much that I wanted to do it for other kids, too. And that’s what I do now.”
Contact Josh Brown at (937) 552-2132, or follow @TroyDailySports on Twitter.