Maylee Phelps: On the rise and ready for more
Seven months ago, Maylee Phelps was in uncharted territory and just happy to be making her BNP Paribas World Team Cup debut; as the opportunity to represent Team USA comes around again, however, the 15-year-old says that she's setting her sights higher.
Phelps, the third-ranked junior in the ITF/UNIQLO Wheelchair Tennis Tour’s world rankings, will lead the four-player U.S. junior team at the 'World Cup of wheelchair tennis' when it begins on Monday; the event, which is the wheelchair tennis counterpart to the Billie Jean King Cup and Davis Cup and features men's, women's, quad and junior competition, is back to its traditional spring spot on the calendar this year after being canceled in 2020 and rescheduled to late September in 2021 as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On the strength of Phelps' ranking, the U.S. juniors are seeded No.3, and have high hopes of bettering its eighth-place finish from last fall.
"We saw so many amazing players that I had never seen before [last year], and the most exciting thing was just being a part of the team," Phelps told usta.com from her home in Portland, Ore. last week.
"I definitely think I'm more prepared this time. Specifically, [it's about] not having too high of expectations, but still trying and playing my hardest, no matter what happens."
Preparation has been a key theme of Phelps' rise in the sport, which began in earnest after the pandemic. Born with spina bifida, she was a natural from the first time she picked up a racquet three years ago at a local adaptive tennis clinic, but according to her mother, Rebecca, the ability to play the socially-distant sport often during the pandemic helped Maylee to think big.
"Tennis was almost literally an instant match for her ... The big question was, did she want to [go further] and did she have a passion for it? Her passion has just grown, so it's been really neat to see that," Rebecca Phelps says. "She's very determined; she sets her goals and she's not going to stop until she reaches them. She's really made that shift from, 'Tennis is fun,' to 'I have a bigger idea in mind and I want to be a Paralympian.' ... Lessons increased and so did time off the court. Mental preparation has greatly, greatly increased, and that's made a big difference in her.
"Her coach at one point said, 'I really think she can take this all the way, but she's going to need to do that. It's not going to come from me as a coach. It's not going to come from you as parents. It needs to come from her.' We sat down and just said, 'Look, this is what [he] sees in you; I want you to take some time and think about it,' and she did. We gave her some time to really process it, because has turned into, sort of, a job for someone who's 14, 15 years old, but she has not wavered once she made that decision.
"That, to me, has been very inspiring, even as an adult or her mom, the way that she just pushes through even if she has a bad practice or a tournament, maybe a match doesn't go her way. She's going to take things and she's going to learn and she's going to grow from that."
The results have been immediate. Last February, Phelps showed her potential when competing alongside adults at the Southwest Florida Wheelchair Open Championships, and she's won two tour-level junior titles in the months since she first wore 'USA' on her back last September. When she takes the court in Vilamoura next week, she'll get to see what she's committing to lately in action; this year, she's spent time retooling her backhand and doing more strength training, while keeping her forehand as the cornerstone of her game.
Wiser, if not yet a full year older, since her national team debut, Phelps says her favorite thing about tennis is getting to meet people from a variety of origins and backgrounds; her peers on the U.S. junior team this year, for example, hail from California, Colorado and Nebraska, and she played her first-ever match representing Team USA against junior world No. 1 Lizzy de Greef of the Netherlands. Her long-term goal is to represent the U.S. in 2028 at the Paralympics in Los Angeles, but until then, Rebecca Phelps says that every day is a new opportunity for her daughter.
"It's not just meeting people. It's meeting people with disabilities that are out there doing things and not letting anything slow them down ... It's an incredible family atmosphere there, just that the the older players really do a great job with the juniors and they encourage them," Rebecca Phelps adds.
"She had some matches last year at World Team Cup that were tough, the toughest she's ever played that she really wasn't expecting, and so it was very emotional for her. Dana [Mathewson] and David [Wagner], seeing them sitting out there watching her match and cheering her on, they just wrapped around her and gave her the encouragement she needed. I couldn't give it to her. They had lived that and they used that experience to just help her grow.
"Her first match against the world No. 1 last year, it was overwhelming, to say the least. I think that they now consider themselves friends. It's neat to see her be able to play with kids at that level, and learn and grow from it, no matter what the match score might be."
More from the 2022 BNP Paribas World Team Cup
The 2022 BNP Paribas World Team Cup will be played in Vilamoura, Portugal from May 2-8. For more information, including access to historical records and to follow the event, visit the USTA's BNP Paribas World Team Cup homepage or the 2022 ITF World Team Cup site.