Bell Blankenship has always tried to create her own identity. Tennis is one of her ways to show she doesn’t have to necessarily be a part of the crowd.
Long before Blankenship, a rising junior at Jefferson High, was keeping the opponent constantly scrambling on the court, she was just trying to identify a way she was different than other girls in her classes.
“She wanted to try something different, and lo and behold, she found tennis and really loved it,” said her mother, Jolee Blankenship.
And this season for the Lady Dragons, the younger Blankenship’s game really blossomed with a 14-1 record playing at No. 1 singles as she led the team to the second round of the Class AA state tournament. Her only loss came at the hands of Athens Academy’s Margaret Boyette, who is ranked No. 17 in the southeast.
For her efforts, Blankenship is The Times’ 2010 Girls Tennis Player of the Year.
Blankenship found the opening to tennis in the second grade when she was was given a flyer about taking tennis lessons.
It sounded like a good idea to her since all her friends were playing basketball, softball, soccer or cheerleading, and she wanted her own niche in athletics.
Her introduction to the sport came with periodic lessons at the Athens Country Club and instructor Colin Donley. From the start, Jolee Blankenship recognized her daughter’s enjoyment of the sport. That eventually carried over to joining the middle school team and evolved to where she sits now as a star singles player for Jefferson.
Bell Blankenship, the oldest of three sisters, was encouraged by her mother to play sports. Once on the tennis team, she pursued it with the same tenacity she applies to academics (Blakenship carries all As in the classroom).
“When Bell decides she’s going to do something, she’s going to work at it until she succeeds,” her mother added. “That’s just how she’s wired.”
However, tennis hasn’t always been just about trying to win a match; it also helped her through a very difficult chapter of life.
When she was in the third grade, her father, Art, passed away from a heart attack. As a kid, it was only natural for Blankenship to feel a tremendous sense of loss, which she tried to channel in the most positive outlet possible.
“Playing tennis got my mind off of the sadness,” she said. “If I was sad, I could go out and hit and it could calm me down and bring me some relief.”
“When her father died, that’s when she really threw herself into the sport,” her mother added.
The feeling of loss hasn’t left Bell Blankenship. The family still talks about losing Art regularly. It’s just now Blankenship has her own outlet to deal with the curveball life threw at her as a 9-year old.
Blankenship has found that her advantage on the court rests with assessing the opponent’s weakness quickly and trying to take advantage of it. Jefferson coach Jim Bryan says that she is a pro at playing “old man tennis.”
That style of playing head games against the other girl was on display in the second round playoff match against Calhoun.
Like usual, Blankenship drew the card of having to face the Yellow Jackets’ best player, which in this case was a highly-ranked player. Blankenship continued to move the ball around the court with different strokes and won the first set, 6-0, and was tied 4-all in the second before the match was called due to rain.
“The girl Bell was playing could hit the corners,” Bryan said. “So Bell got in her head by hitting dropballs and putting good backspin on her shots.”
“That girl (from Calhoun) had hard groundstrokes, but she was not as consistent,” Blankenship said. “So I started to move the ball around because she wasn’t as strong at the net.”
These are the kind of matches that Blankenship likes. Even in a loss, like against the Furman-signee Boyette, she tries to sharpen her eye for pouncing on an opponent’s weakness. “Playing good competition just pushes me to get better,” she added.
This summer, Blankenship doesn’t plan to take too much time away from the court. Whether it’s playing USTA events, camps, practice, or just running to stay in shape, being ready for next season remains a high priority.
“Tennis is the only sport that I play, and that’s why I take it so seriously,” Blankenship said.