FALMOUTH – Meghan Kelley knows she leads a rather unusual lifestyle, much different than most 13-year-old girls.
Which is how she found herself, during a week in May at the prestigious Junior Tennis Champions Center in Maryland, concentrating not on her crosscourt backhand, second serve or drop volley, but on her heartfelt recitation of the Maya Angelou poem, “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.”
Oh, and she did it on a lunch break, inside an automobile, in front of a video camera.
“Everyone was laughing,” Kelley said. “They were like, ‘Why are you in a car?’ I was like, ‘Well, I couldn’t do it anywhere else. It was the only quiet place.’ “
Then, of course, there was the problem of emailing such a large file to her teacher back at Falmouth Middle School. Meghan and her mom, Jennifer, laugh about the situation now.
“Everybody there is worried about putting their best foot forward on the tennis court,” Jennifer Kelley said of the invited campers. “Meghan was more concerned about getting her poetry project in on time.”
Juggling schoolwork and tennis has been a constant challenge for Kelley as she has risen in national tennis rankings over the past two years, from 400-something to as high as 21st in the country for girls aged 14-and-under. She won the singles title at a national tournament in Michigan earlier this month and teamed with a girl from Connecticut to win three national age-group doubles titles.
Instead of defending her women’s singles crown at the Betty Blakeman Memorial this weekend in Yarmouth — where last summer she became the youngest champion in tournament history — Kelley will board a plane today bound for Florida, where she is scheduled to play in the 14-and-under National Clay Court Championships.
“She’s been playing some amazing tennis,” said Eric Blakeman, who teamed with Kelley to win the mixed doubles title in early June at the M&M Classic, the only Maine-based tournament of the 21 she has played so far this year. “She’s quite the phenom.”
Among the states where she has played this year: California, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio, Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. After the Florida tournament, she will represent New England at a USTA zonal team competition in St. Louis, then travel to Georgia to take part in the Hard Court Supernationals, one of four major tournaments on the junior tennis circuit.
If she continues to progress, Kelley is hopeful of making the main draw of December’s prestigious Orange Bowl tournament, which attracts an international field. Although she won’t turn 14 until October, she already has clearly defined long-term goals.
“I want to get a full (college) scholarship to a really good tennis school,” she said. “If I do well there, I want to try to go professional.”
Maintaining straight A’s, as she has done in the Falmouth public school system, has not been easy for the past two years. Not with spending two nights each week in Massachusetts so she can train at a tennis academy based at the Manchester Athletic Club.
Her mom picks her up at school on a Tuesday afternoon and drives her down for practice the rest of the day. Kelley then trains all day Wednesday and Thursday and returns Thursday night. A host family — with a tennis-playing daughter of similar age — provides a home away from home.
“She has a weird schedule as well,” Kelley said. “She goes (to school) half days.”
Not all of her Falmouth friends understand why Kelley spends so much time away from school. The girls she has met on the national circuit — the majority of whom are home-schooled, she said — know the commitment necessary to be competitive at their level.
“Practice makes perfect,” Kelley said, “so the more practice, the more perfect.”
On Thursday morning, Kelley hit on the clay courts of Portland Country Club with her fellow 2011 Blakeman individual champion, Ben Cox, a 31-year-old professional. Back and forth flew the tennis balls, a blur of green beneath the tall pines as, nearby, the final round of the Maine Amateur golf tournament drew a small crowd of spectators.
“She hits it well,” said Cox, who was on the losing end of that M&M mixed doubles final won by Kelley and Blakeman.
It’s not all tennis. Friday was spent boogie boarding at Higgins Beach in Scarborough. Her younger sisters, Meredith and Kate, miss Meghan when she’s away.
“We do try to keep some normalcy,” said Jennifer. “Her sisters are always happy to see her.”
Tennis remains fun, Meghan said. At no point has she felt like that object of Angelou’s poem.
“I know people who play tennis (who) don’t have many choices,” she said, “because either their parents (insist), or just at an early age that they’re committed to tennis so much that they’re like a caged bird.”
Not her, though. “I just like it so much,” she said, “that it never seems like too much.”
Staff Writer Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at: