Minnesota’s top-ranked girls’ prep tennis player finds acceptance in her grief

·4 min read

Details of her inaugural high school tennis victory, the first of more than 100 to come, escape Maple Grove senior Zoe Adkins.

In the fall of 2016, she made her varsity debut as a seventh-grader. She won all three matches at No. 1 singles in a tournament at Anoka, though her opponents and scores are a blur. Her father, Doug, was there.

Throughout her six-year career, Adkins earned Crimson coach Dan Haertl's praise as "the most dedicated player I've ever had."

She takes the No. 1 ranking into the Class 2A playoffs, which begin Tuesday.

Adkins, a two-time state tournament qualifier, placed third as a freshman in 2018 and fourth as a sophomore. She likened the intensity of those matches to what she experiences in United States Tennis Association regional or national tournaments.

"You've got to fight so hard for every point," Adkins said. "My ability to fight and grind through points is my style for winning tough matches. Fighting on the court is what makes the sport fun."

Except for a stretch when a family tragedy took the joy out of her game.

Her career started in linear fashion. She joined the Maple Grove program only months after Charlie, the second of her two older brothers who were standout tennis players, graduated. Charlie and Zachary helped the Crimson reach its first state tournament in 2012. Expectations soared for Zoe, who also excelled at the sport at an early age.

Sometimes it helps to be third in the birth order. Charlie and Zachary were started in a basic community education tennis program before their instructor saw they could handle more advanced coaching. Meanwhile, Zoe "went to our private coach right away," Charlie said. "And she also watched a lot of tennis and gained so much knowledge for how to play."

When Adkins drew the top singles spot for her first varsity match, the precocious seventh-grader met the moment.

"I trusted my game and I loved competing, so once I got on the court, I was just excited to play," Adkins said. "My dad was there and was happy to see me competing well in a new environment."

Doug Adkins watched most of his daughter's matches, often alone to avoid sharing his apprehension with others or because his wife, Jody, had enough and moved to another viewing area.

"He'd get really stressed out during my matches," Adkins said. "He'd put his head in his hands. And he always brought a Kindle for reading. I'd lose a point and look up, and I'd see him sitting there reading, trying not to care."

Adkins appreciated her father's presence, until his unexpected death in May 2020.

Doug Adkins, 53, was a partner and creative director of the Hunt Adkins agency in Minneapolis. His team produced the Twins' "Get to Know 'Em" campaign in 2001.

His loss stayed with Adkins as she returned to the court. She struggled through a Universal Tennis Rating tournament held on Father's Day at Maple Grove High School only weeks after her father's death.

"I eked out a few matches," Adkins said. "But it wasn't how I wanted to play or feel on the court. I felt empty. I didn't feel that spark when I was playing. I felt super melancholy."

Sadness lingered.

"The year after he died was probably the hardest year I will ever go through," Adkins said. "It was horrible. There were moments I struggled playing. I'd get on the court and I'd feel fine, but it was always hanging around."

Adkins said she found the motivation to get back to battling on court, a renewal which coincided with what she called "an acceptance stage" of "I'm OK now."

Doug Adkins passed along an enjoyment of reading and writing to his daughter, who also credits him for her sense of humor, sarcasm and love of virtual gaming. Her competitiveness comes from both parents.

When Adkins is on her game, she senses it in her increased court coverage.

"Whenever I'm feeling nervous or tight on the court, my legs are the first things to not feel perfect," she said. "When I'm moving well on the court, that's when everything else is better. My confidence goes up and my mind-set is a little stronger.

"I have the mind-set of owning my shots. Even when you might miss once in a while."

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