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Rochester tennis connections run deep at big-time Cincinnati event

Rochester natives, longtime friends and tennis stars Jessie Aney and Ingrid Neel will be joining forces as they'll play doubles together in next week's Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati. The tournament is being run by Rochester native and former professional doubles standout Eric Butorac.

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Rochester native Ingrid Neel returns a shot during her doubles match with partner Tornado Black at the U.S. Open Junior Championships in Flushing Meadow, N.Y., in 2015.
Contributed photo
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Three of the most iconic tennis people ever from tennis-rich Rochester will be together next week, in Cincinnati.

Two of them — 24-year-olds, longtime friends and one-time child tennis prodigies Ingrid Neel and Jessie Aney — will be on the same court. They’ll be doubles teammates beginning Monday, playing in one of the most prestigious professional tournaments in the United States, the Western and Southern Open.

The third Rochester person who’ll be joining them in this lead-up to the U.S. Open will be Eric Butorac. Rochester’s all-time best men’s player and a former professional doubles star, Butorac has turned to the business side of tennis since retiring from playing in 2016. The 41-year-old is the Western and Southern Open’s tournament director. Butorac spends half of his year on this job, the other half as the Director of Professional Tennis Operations at the U.S. Open.

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Rochester native Eric Butorac speaks at the 2021 Western and Southern Open professional tennis event near Cincinnati. Butorac, a former ATV Tour player, is the director of the tournament for 2022.
Contributed photo / Tony Wagner

On Wednesday, he was making sure a private jet was ready to fly one of tennis’ all-time greats, Rafael Nadal, to Cincinnati the following day. Nadal, Serena Williams and a cast of superstars will be taking part in the Cincinnati tournament, just like those two Rochester players, Neel and Aney.

“It is an unbelievable opportunity to be running masters events this early in my career,” said Butorac, who lives with his wife and three kids in Greenwich, Conn. “If you would have told me I’d be doing this only five years into my (non-playing) career, I wouldn’t have believed it. But it’s kind of like my tennis career. I wouldn’t have believed it either if you’d told me I’d eventually be playing at Wimbledon. But I just let things play out.”

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The same can be said of Neel and Aney, though they’d at least dreamed and also been pegged for the big time all the way back to second grade. At different times, each was ranked in the top 10 nationally in their age group. And both went on to play for big-time Division I tennis programs, Neel helping the University of Florida to a national championship and Aney playing for a top-10 program at the University of North Carolina.

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Jessie Aney was one of the top tennis recruits in the country in her age group when she played at Rochester Century. Aney played college tennis at the University of North Carolina, one of the best programs in the country.
Contributed / University of North Carolina file photo

In their earliest years, it seemed almost impossible that these tennis prodigies were the same age, best friends and both growing up in the same town, one then with fewer than 100,000 people.

But there they were, Neel once declared by former tennis superstar John McEnroe to be a future star and Aney using her combined skills in tennis and hockey to be named by Sports Illustrated as its 2010 SportsKid of the Year.

Until Neel left with her family for Florida when she was heading into ninth grade to get more concentrated year-round academy training in tennis, these two were inseparable, on and off the court.

Ten years have passed since then, though they never stopped staying connected, mostly by phone.

There has forever been their tennis journeys to keep them logged into each others lives. After one year spent at Florida, Neel turned professional. She’s gone from her pro start-up days in the ITF tennis world, to now playing in the next rung, the WTA. She’s hop-scotched the world in both, including having spent most of this summer playing tournaments in Europe.

A couple of years into going pro, Neel determined that her best chance of advancement was in doubles. She’s been concentrating on that ever since and it’s seen her go from a ranking of 200th in the world in doubles to her current ranking of 104th. It’s also seen her play at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

“I didn’t feel like I had what it took in singles,” said Neel, who lives in Jacksonville, Fla,, with her parents when she’s not touring. “But I believed that in doubles, I could be on top of my game. That was tough for me at first, to be done with singles. But sometimes you have to follow your head instead of your heart. And I’ve been perfectly happy with what I’ve chosen now.”

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Aney never quit on her drive for both tennis and hockey, though the former has always taken the lead. She played four years of tennis at the University of North Carolina before getting in a year of hockey at the University of Connecticut. That was followed immediately by what she’s doing now, also hop-scotching the world as she plays mostly singles in the ITF.

Like Neel, she’s seemingly been everywhere. That includes possibly her three favorite months of this pro tennis existence, in Egypt. There have also been stops in Turkey, Africa and all over Europe. Of late, it’s been spent with her boyfriend by her side, feeding her tennis balls and seeing the world.

She’s not complaining.

“In ITF tennis, you can go pretty much anywhere,” Aney said. “I’ve taken advantage of that. There are some real perks to this. There have been some really cool experiences, getting really immersed in another culture.”

This next experience is one that both Aney and Neel are anticipating like none other. Not only is this a prestigious event that they are competing in, but for the first time since they were about 16 years old, they'll be competing together.

It’s all there for these two Rochester natives. They’ll be seeing each other for the first time in a year, so ready to renew their bond. They’ll be making contact with that tournament director, Butorac, who encouraged them to join forces in Cincinnati and has known them forever. They’ll also be making contact with a slew of friends from Minnesota who are trekking to Cincinnati to watch them.

And, finally, they are going to find out just how good they are together. That piece is an unkown, but they are aching to find out.

“I assume it’s going to go well since we’ve known each other since we were 7,” Aney said. “I know how she plays. As long as we’re super aggressive, we’ll do well. It’s been our childhood dream to be on the big stage together. I’m just going to enjoy being out there with her.”

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Neel can’t help but wonder what could be ahead for them. Like Aney, she’s forever wanted this.

“You never know; it’s one match at a time,” she said. “But we have always dreamed of playing together.”

Who knows, it could be a match made in . . . Rochester.

• There will actually be a fourth former Rochester tennis star in Cincinnati, starting on Sunday. That is when University of Wisconsin senior Sebastian Vile will show up, participating in a college showdown at the Western and Southern Open site. That is something being done in conjunction with the professional tournament and dreamed up by that other Rochester guy, Butorac.

Related Topics: WOMEN'S TENNISJESSICA ANEY
Pat has been a Post Bulletin sports reporter since 1994. He covers Rochester John Marshall football, as well as a variety of other southeastern Minnesota football teams. Among my other southeastern Minnesota high school beats are girls basketball, boys and girls tennis, boys and girls track and field, high school and American Legion baseball, volleyball, University of Minnesota sports (on occasion) and the Timberwolves (on occasion). Readers can reach Pat at 507-285-7723 or pruff@postbulletin.com.
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