It's a day sophomore Kayleigh Thurwalker said she will never forget.
Then a freshman at Belleville West, she got to "hit" with one of the greatest tennis players of all time -- East St. Louis native and former Belleville resident Jimmy Connors.
Three days before the 2011 O'Fallon Tennis Sectional, veteran Belleville West tennis coach Bob Keefe got a phone call from Kings Point tennis professional John Connors wanting to know if Thurwalker could leave practice early to hit with his brother.
At the time, she was the Maroons No. 4 singles player. She didn't know she would be hitting with Connors until she walked on the court.
"I was so surprised. It was a great experience,'' Thurwalker recalled last week. "It was a little nerve-wracking. But he (Jimmy Connors) was so nice. We talked about the way I was hitting my forehand.''
Whatever Connors said helped.
Four days later, Thurwalker defeated top seed Shannon Wuller, of Althoff, and second seed Savannah Martin, of Belleville East, to win the sectional championship.
Thurwalker hasn't stopped working and improving since. This fall as the Maroons' top player, Thurwalker won more than 30 matches, captured the Southwestern Conference title and won her second straight Illinois High School Association sectional championship.
For those accomplishments, Thurwalker became the top singles player in the area and has been awarded the honor as the Belleville News-Democrat Player of the Year.
The daughter of Zac and Tiffany, Thurwalker went on to play in the IHSA State Tennis Tournament, where she split four matches.
Standing 5-foot-11 and being naturally athletic and quick, Thurwalker has limitless potential said Keefe, who worked with mom Tiffany when she was Kayleigh's age.
Tiffany (nee Rickett) Thurwalker was a standout player at Belleville East in the late 1980s, and her brother Robb Rickett combined with Bobby Farmer at Belleville East to place second in doubles at the 1987 IHSA State Tennis Tournament.
"From the first moment on, Kayleigh was pretty much a clone to her mom," Keefe said. "Tiffany had a two-handed forehand and two-handed backhand whereas Kayleigh had the two-handed backhand but she hits the one-handed forehand. That was pretty much the only difference. But both of them had that competitive spirit. They were both very focused and wanted to do the right thing. They both wanted to win.''
Introduced to the sport by her mother at a young age, Thurwalker actually put tennis aside for a while to play basketball and volleyball in elementary school.
Her dad played basketball at Belleville East and went on to play at Western Carolina University. But for the last few years, Thurwalker's sport has been tennis, first with Keefe and now John Connors and Keefe serving as her primary tennis mentors.
The strong finish to her freshman season in 2011 served as motivation for Thurwalker, who spent many hours on the tennis courts over the offseason practicing and competing in tournaments.
That hard work paid off in her sophomore season.
"It was a good year," she said. "I got some good competition, got some experience and started improving my groundstrokes.
"I use to just keep the ball in play. This year I was more aggressive, tried moving the ball around a little more. I was trying to hit the ball with more pace and deeper in the court. I was finishing off points better.
Keefe noticed the difference in Thurwalker early this season.
"People Kayleigh was losing to in the summer -- Callaghan Adams, of Edwardsville. and Janelle Wilson, of Marquette -- she was beating in straight sets three weeks later during the high school season,'' Keefe said. "It was an amazing turnaround.''
Thurwalker also defeated Adams, the top player from Edwardsville, in the SWC Tournament.
After winning the title at the Belleville West Sectional, Thurwalker went on to win her first two matches in the state tournament before dropping a 6-1, 6-0 match to top-seeded Caroline Ryba, of Glenbrook South.
"I actually thought I played pretty well. There were a lot of 3-3 games that she (Ryba) won and we were playing no-add scoring,'' Thurwalker said. "It was a good experience playing the No. 1 seed, and I learned some things about my own game and what its going to take to get to that level.''
One of those things is a stronger serve and, more specifically, a stronger second serve.
"Kayleigh's second serve needs to be hit with more pace and deeper,'' Keefe said. "This season because she's such a good athlete and so quick, Kayleigh was still able to get the ball back in play when her opponents took advantage of her second serve.
"Kayleigh will continue to improve as a tennis player because she works so hard on her game. John (Connors) has told me numerous times that Kayleigh's the type of player he enjoys working with because of her attitude and desire to improve.''
Thurwalker also excels in the classroom, where she has a perfect 4.0 grade point average.
She plans to continuing to work on her game with a summer of tournaments in 2013 in preparation for her junior season at Belleville West.
Contact reporter Dean Criddle at 239-2661 or email@example.com