After playing in the NCAA semifinals as a freshman, Cameron Morra hopes to play in the Citi Open later this month in Washington. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Nearly every day after school, Cameron Morra escaped to her family’s Rockville tennis court. She didn’t play for her high school team at Stone Ridge in Bethesda. She hardly traveled to any junior tournaments, a path the vast majority of elite young tennis players in the United States take when they look to develop their game and impress college coaches.

That route requires air travel, tens of thousands of dollars a year in expenses and “a lot of stress,” Morra said. The pressure, the competition, the workload, the travel, the cost — all of it seemed like a waste of time and money to her family. Instead, she and her sister played almost exclusively in their backyard, for nobody to see.

Not playing junior tournaments or having a coach (other than her father, Dave) meant there was less obligation to practice and less exposure. Morra, now 19, still became one of the best tennis players in her class, earned a scholarship to North Carolina and then emerged as one of the top players in college tennis as a freshman this spring: the ACC freshman of the year and an all-American who advanced to the semifinals of the NCAA singles championship.

Now she’s hoping for a wild-card entry to the Citi Open, which starts July 27 at Rock Creek Park Tennis Center in Washington. (College tennis players can remain NCAA eligible despite playing professional tournaments as long as they remain under certain financial thresholds.) Barring remarkable professional success in the next year or two, Morra said she plans to graduate from UNC. Then her hope is to be a full-time pro.

Morra is the equivalent of a talented college basketball player who didn’t play for an AAU or high school team, a baseball prospect who eschewed travel teams for sandlot ball in the neighborhood. Few precedents exist. Brian Kalbas, her coach at North Carolina and a college coach since 1989, said he had never recruited a player who bypassed junior tennis — until he offered a scholarship to Morra. Her path, he said, could be groundbreaking.

“The travel is crazy. You go West Coast-East Coast every weekend,” Morra said of the more traditional path. “When you’re young, I feel like it’s an easy way to burn out, in a sense. I’ve never lost my love for tennis.”


Cameron Morra, poses with her sister, Sloane, father Dave, and mother Elizabeth on the family's tennis court in Rockville, where she spends several hours nearly every day refining her game. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Cameron and her younger sister, Sloane, first hit tennis balls at age 3. Before there was a backyard tennis court, there was a two-car garage. Morra’s father drew an X on the wall. Some days, it was a smiley face. The intent was to hit hard, yes, but also to be precise. “Take a whack at it,” Dave would say. One day, at age 5, Cameron hit a ball so hard it went through the drywall.

A few years later, Dave Morra measured the family’s backyard with a tape measure to ensure a tennis court would fit. Soon he got a permit for the court.

For elite players, the sport often requires intensive training from a young age, often at academies with renowned coaches, a route the family could have chosen. But Dave Morra said he saw other young kids traveling to places as far as California, spending “God-knows-what.” So the family chose a different path for Cameron and Sloane, 17, who Dave says is as good as Cameron and probably will play high-major college tennis.

“We decided to get them as good as they can be and see what happens,” Dave said. “We could’ve done this plan, and it could have been awful.”

Fourteen years later, Cameron Morra still doesn’t have a driver’s license. She is the rare player who strikes her forehands with not one but two hands, the result of using an adult-sized racket as a child and needing both hands to control it.

On a sunny afternoon last month, she sat on her family’s court and considered her trajectory. Things ache — her back and shoulder, mostly. “It’s just overuse,” she said. “A lot of tennis.”

But she said she never felt pressure to do what everybody else was doing, and she never worried about the risk of staying at home.

“I just wanted to see how far I could go,” Morra said. “I think I was too young to even consider the risk, you know what I mean? I was raised on the fact that this is what we’re doing: We’re going to give it a whirl.”

Discipline was essential, she said, from intense practice sessions to the extra time she spent hitting balls to resisting junk food. It helped that Dave Morra, who doesn’t have an elite tennis background, could arrange his job as a dentist around the tennis workout schedule of his two daughters.


Morra, 19, eschewed the traditional tennis path of junior tournaments, opting to train with her younger sister and father in their backyard. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Because of her nontraditional trail, there wasn’t a tangible way for college coaches to evaluate Morra against her peers. She didn’t have a ranking like other top recruits. Yet coaches began seeing her name after they noticed, in the few matches she did play, that she was beating players they were recruiting — in some cases, players several years older who already were on Division I rosters. That earned her a visit to Duke, where she had a one-hour private meeting with Hall of Fame basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski. And a visit to USC, where she met then-star quarterback Sam Darnold, who now plays for the New York Jets.

She wound up at North Carolina. Kalbas, her college coach, said Morra is far from a perfect player. She needs to improve her serve, strength and transition game: volleys, overhand shots and finishing. But Morra, at 5-foot-10, has the size and “hits the snot out of the ball,” he said.

“She has the intangibles to be a top-level pro,” he said. “Her ball-striking and her competitiveness could get her there.”

Whatever happens next, it seems the family’s daring route has paid off.

“You took a chance on me,” Morra likes to tell Kalbas.

“Look at how far you’ve come,” Kalbas says.

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