This post was written by guest author Eric Roddy. Eric is a junior at the University of the South, where he studies English and Spanish and is a member of the varsity tennis team. In his spare time he enjoys teaching tennis and writing for various publications. Follow him on Twitter @ERman1024 or contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can read more of Eric’s writing here.
The tennis community lost one of its best players yesterday with the passing of 20-year-old Sean Karl. The sophomore tennis star and former blue-chip recruit of the University of Tennessee-Knoxville lost his battle with Ewing’s Sarcoma, after previously being cleared of the disease to play tennis for the Vols.
Sean was ranked no. 1 in the nation in the Boys’ 16 and Under division before committing to play tennis at the University of Tennessee.
Growing up playing throughout the Southern region in USTA tournaments, there wasn’t a junior tennis player out there who didn’t know Sean Karl. Sean was what you strived to be, and what you admired watching. He was the player who would without a doubt last deep into the tournament, long after you were eliminated. If you finished your matches for the day, instead of going home you stayed after to catch a glimpse of one of his matches. If he didn’t make the finals, you were shocked. It had to have been an upset.
He was that good.
It wasn’t rare to have lost two or three matches in the amount of time it took Sean to lose just two or three games. And it was his hard work and his insatiable desire to be better that spurned his success. Sure, he had natural talent. His strokes were flawless, and he could absolutely crush the ball by age 12 (when the rest of us were still in the lobbing phase of tennis). However, it was his willingness to outwork you that was so evident, so beautiful about his game.
Sean began playing tennis around age 4 and went on to win three consecutive state singles titles as a student at Ravenwood High School in Brentwood, Tennessee.
Shockingly, in almost 10 years of playing the same tournaments at the same venues, I never once played Sean Karl. Part of me is thankful for that, as it meant sparing me one more notch in the loss column. That being said, part of me wishes I had, because the possibility of getting destroyed by Sean was in a way, fun. That is how much respect the rest of us had for him. Though I never faced him, one memory of Sean sticks out in my mind from all of the matches I watched him play. I was a 12-year-old playing on the court directly beside Sean and his opponent at the Tennessee State Qualifying tournament in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Not unusually, Sean was destroying his opponent, as was expected in the earlier rounds of the tournament. A few points away from winning the match, Sean had his foot and could see the finish line. In one of the final points of the match, Sean ripped a forehand deep into the corner of the court, and jogged into net to hit an easy volley winner. However, with help from a gust of wind, the ball shanked off of his opponent’s racket, and landed over Sean’s outreached arm into the court for a winner. Sean stopped, turned to his opponent and smiled, congratulating him for hitting a good shot, a shot that undoubtedly would have pissed off the 12-year-old me. A few points later, Sean won the match, and graciously shook his opponent’s hand, once again commending the previous shot.
“[Sean’s] outlook on life and his infectious positivity made people around him better,” said Tennessee head coach Sam Winterbotham. “He is without doubt the toughest person I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet.”
While it was Sean’s ability to make playing tennis at a high level look easy, it was that one moment of pure grace and moral awareness that still sticks out in my mind today, even eight years later. Even as a naïve and rambunctious 12-year-old (a time where winning seems like everything) Sean knew that tennis was more than that. He knew that offering congratulations to his opponent during that one point was just as important as winning the next point and the match. He played each match not only to the best of his tennis ability, but to the best of his character.
My thoughts and prayers go out to the Karl family. And to Sean – thank you for serving as a role model to those around you at all times and for teaching us what it truly means to be a winner on the court. May you rest in peace.