As a young junior tennis player, Caroline Dunleavy played in some of her earliest tennis tournaments at the Yale University tennis center.
Last Friday, the 19-year-old Darien native played on those same courts against one of the top players in the world.
Dunleavy, who plays tennis for Yale, competed in the qualifying round of the Connecticut Open against Anna Blinkova, who is currently ranked 100th by the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA). Blinkova, the runner-up in the 2015 junior finals at Wimbledon, defeated Dunleavy 6-2, 6-0. Yet despite the loss, Dunleavy said the match is proof she can play tennis at the highest level.
“I definitely competed well and we had some really great points,” she said. “So I think it is really exciting to see that I can compete with someone of that level and hold my own with her.”
Dunleavy grew up playing tennis and ice hockey in Darien, switching to tennis full time in the sixth grade. She attended Greenwich Academy, spending training time at both the USTA training facility in New York, as well as the prestigious Justine Henin Tennis Academy in Belgium in the fall of her junior and senior years.
Choosing to attend high school rather than pursue homeschooling, while at Greenwich Academy she worked with tennis coach Carl Thorsen and trained at Bluestreak Sports Training with trainer Katie Mazin.
“I think it’s so much pressure to go full homeschool,” Dunleavy said. “It would have been nice to have spent a few more hours on the court every day, but I think it taught me time management. It prepared me more for the rigors of college where you really have no time and you’re trying to take hard classes, and there’s so much demand from the team.”
As a high school senior, she was the No. 1 college recruit in New England, and also earned a WTA ranking of 1207. She originally chose to play tennis at Notre Dame, but after her coach retired at the end of her freshman year, Dunleavy transferred to Yale.
“At Notre Dame we had a tough season, and at the end of the season our coach retired,” she said. “He was a huge reason why I went there, and with his retirement I decided to transfer. I had always wanted to go to Yale, and it seemed like an incredible opportunity.”
Each year, because the Connecticut Open is held on Yale’s tennis courts, the team is given one wild card spot for the women’s qualifying draw; this year coach Danielle Lund McNamara chose Dunleavy for the honor.
“I think she could have picked other girls, but coming from Connecticut it was really special for me to play in the event,” Dunleavy said. “I’ve been working really hard, and played in a lot of tournaments this summer, but everyone is really deserving.”
Dunleavy also competed in an exhibition doubles match on Monday night, playing with Fairfield native James Blake and Lindsay Davenport, where she enjoyed the support of the local crowd, including mom Sheryl, a former ice hockey player for Boston College.
“My mom has done so much to allow me to play at this level and she has sacrificed so much for me,” Dunleavy said. “She traveled with me, she’s left work all the time and her vacation days have been spent taking me to Memphis or Florida in July, so I think it’s really exciting for her to see that I’ve been able to have these really amazing opportunities.”
Especially exciting for her family, Dunleavy said, was watching her play against the pros on the courts at Yale.
“I’ve definitely won and lost some of my biggest junior battles on those courts. I won my biggest 12 and under tournament at Yale, and I remember the court I played on and everything,” she said.
“So it was really cool.”