LEXINGTON — Harper Harris and her brother made some noise Friday night during the mixed doubles division of the 90th News Journal Tennis Tournament. But in the end they were all bark and, to be honest, easily distracted.
Which is ironic because several two-legged members of their family are all in this weekend when it comes to celebrating the tournament’s milestone birthday.
Jay Harris, a six-time men’s singles champion, drove in from Long Island with Harper, a Shetland Sheepdog, and Chewbacca, a Pomeranian Australian Shepherd mix, along with his sons, Jackson and Mason.
Arriving at about the same time by car from Kansas City were Harris’ sister, Nickie (Harris) Gibbs and her kids, Jensen and Cole. Flying in separately were Gibbs’ husband, Brad, and Harris’ fiance, Sharon Rappaport, the defending women’s singles champ.
“I was never not going to play in this because it’s the 90th,” said Gibbs, a 1995 Lexington High School grad, “but I haven’t played competitive tennis in 15 years and probably in this tournament since college.”
Harris, conserving his energy for men’s singles and doubles – he and partner Will Calhoun are ranked No. 1 in the nation in the 50-and-other division – was content to offer moral support Friday night at Lakewood Racquet Club, along with his parents, Chriss and John.
They watched as family members made up three of the 10 teams competing in mixed doubles. Nickie Gibbs played with her nephew, Jackson Harris. Jensen Gibbs played with her cousin, Mason Harris. And Cole Gibbs, a sophomore at the University of Nebraska, teamed up with his friend from Omaha, Emma Westbrook.
Nickie Gibbs and Jackson Harris made it the farthest of those three tandems, reaching the semifinals before falling 4-3 to eventual champs Ryan Mecurio and Calista Bobulo.
For most of the night the competition was the tennis version of speed dating. It started with four 25-minute rounds. When time in each round was up, you tallied up how many games you won and moved on to another court for a date with another couple.
At the end of those four rounds, the eight teams with the most wins moved on to the quarterfinals, at which point it became a bracket tournament following a no-ad, first to four wins format.
Mecurio, just two years removed from earning second team All-Ohio honors in doubles for Lexington, won a mixed title for the second year in a row, each time with a different partner.
Last year he won with Evie Hostetler, a former Lex player. This year he won with Bobulo, who like Mecurio plays tennis for Cedarville University. Both will be sophomores this fall.
Against Gibbs and Harris, they were serving for the match at 3-2, only to get extended to a decisive seventh game. But after getting broken, they broke right back for the win and then beat Justin Csepe, a teaching pro in Wooster, and his wife Alyssa (Gottschling), a former star pole vaulter for Lex, 4-1 in the finals.
“I called (Calista) last week about playing,” said Mecurio, who in 2021 reached the semis in doubles with Ross Drlik at the OHSAA state tournament. “I wanted to play mixed doubles and I needed someone good.
“She’s good. She’s insane. Her serves were killer the whole night and she just didn’t miss.”
Bobulo, who drove down from the Cleveland suburb of Brunswick, plays No. 3 for Cedarville. Mecurio plays No. 5 and 6 on the men’s team.
“Ryan’s really good,” she said, “so I figured we’d do fine together.”
Nickie Gibbs didn’t know what to expect, but not because she had any worries about how her nephew, Jackson, would do.
“I said at the end, especially in that last match (against Mecurio and Bobula), when we were hitting our stride, we could do well together if one of us was in better shape and had been playing,” she said. “We started attacking more and played smarter.
“I always said I wish I had the brain I have now when I was 20.”
With the match against Mecurio and Bobula tied at 3-all, she joked as she walked behind the baseline that “this is my worst nightmare.” She was referring to having to serve for the match.
A couple of days before the tournament Gibbs wasn’t sure she’d be able to do anything but serve underhand. She began the match serving left-handed, even though she is right-handed.
Given her history of arm and hip woes, it was remarkable that Gibbs played at all. But, then, this was the 90th News Journal, so …
“My surgeon said he would tackle me if he saw me on a tennis court,” she said. “My back ended my college career, but I started playing little tournaments when I moved to Kansas City. In 2010, ’11 and ’12, I had hip reconstruction and my surgeon said, that’s it. You’re done. No tennis.
“So I watched my daughter (Jensen) play and was fine with that. I had my shoulder done in 2019 and lost use of my left arm (because of a crushed radial nerve) in 2021.
“It’s hard for me to come back to this knowing how good I used to be. Jensen said the other day when we were (preparing), ‘You don’t look like you played at a high level.’”
Oh, but she did.
Gibbs was a three-time Ohio Heartland Conference Player of the Year for Lexington before continuing her career at the University of Cincinnati, where she was Scholar-Athlete of the Year her senior year. She won juniors titles in the News Journal and was also a finalist in women’s singles in 1995, losing to threepeat champ Sue Beathler.
Now it’s Jensen’s turn to excel. She placed sixth in singles in her high school state tournament last season as a sophomore.
“I used to play basketball and I was a swimmer, but now it’s just tennis,” she said. “I guess it’s because my whole family played it, really, and I can be competitive.”
Even though she and her cousin, Mason Harris, lost in Friday’s quarterfinals, she considered the evening a success for two reasons.
“I didn’t get hit in the head (by him) like last time we played together,” she said, “and we didn’t kill each other.”
Mason and Jensen have taken part in college tennis exposure camps and combines in hopes of playing at the next level. Mason will be a senior this year at Cranston West High School just outside of Providence, Rhode Island. His brother, Jackson, also played there and helped his team reach the state finals as a freshman.
Both brothers want to follow in their father’s footsteps, in some capacity. Jay Harris is a general manager and tennis director for Sportime New York, a group of clubs that are home to the John McEnroe Tennis Academy.
His sons are both teaching tennis this summer at Agawam Hunt Country Club in Providence, where Harris spent time as head men’s coach at Brown University.
“I was teaching little kids on and off at camps my dad would run, so I’ve been teaching for awhile,” Mason said. “But this is the first time it’s like a real, 30 hours a week, job. I definitely want to coach.”
Jackson will be a senior this year at Johnson & Wales University in Providence.
“I want to do something a little different (than my dad), but I definitely want to be around tennis, maybe more country club-sided,” he said. “It all depends on where life takes me.”
Cole Gibbs only played this weekend because he knows how important this tournament is to his family. He played basketball all four years in high school and is now a manager for the Cornhuskers’ men’s team.
He’s excited about all of the expansion taking place in the Big Ten, especially with USC and UCLA beginning to compete in the league in the 2024-25 school year.
“It’s definitely going to be fun making those trips (to the West Coast),” Cole said.
It will certainly top that awkward home game last January when the Huskers beat Ohio State 63-60. Gibbs was behind the bench and his mom, a diehard Buckeye fan, was in the Nebraska cheering section wearing red. And not Nebraska red.
“My mom didn’t wear any Nebraska (gear),” Cole said. “She just wore red and said she was neutral, but she was definitely rooting for Ohio State.”
It wasn’t the first time Cole and his mom didn’t see eye-to-eye. He never expressed much interest in tennis. He preferred basketball and even baseball because of his dad, who played in the Cincinnati Reds’ farm system.
“My dad plays tennis like he plays baseball,” Cole cracked. “He just tries to hit the ball over the fence.”
Cole, like his cousins, wants to get into coaching. He had a chance to start by tutoring his mixed doubles partner.
Emma Westbrook, who has a soccer background, picked up a racket for the first time – ever– to play in this tournament with Cole.
“I only cried three times,” she joked. “I wanted to quit halfway through the first game.”
One of Jay Harris’ dogs might have had to step in. Except they didn’t seem too interested in even chasing balls.
If You Go
Here’s the weekend schedule for the 90th News Journal Tennis Tournament, with matches set for either Lakewood Racquet Club or the Lexington High School courts:
Saturday: The round of 32 men’s singles matches starts at 9:30 a.m. and the women’s draw begins at 11 a.m. Doubles matches to follow.
The 90th News Journal Tournament birthday celebration from 6:30-9 p.m. at Lakewood.
Sunday: The singles quarterfinals and semifinal matches. Doubles semifinals and finals to follow.
Monday: The men’s and women’s singles championship matches at 6 p.m.
This article originally appeared on Mansfield News Journal: Family affair: Mixed doubles in the NJ tourney feels like a Harris reunion