As Elene Imnaishvili and Regitze Jacobsen played qualifying matches for the state high school singles tennis tournament on adjacent courts at Brewer High School recently, they took notice of each other.
“We were playing next to each other all of the time in our two matches that day. Elene looked very good,” said Jacobsen, an exchange student from Denmark spending her sophomore year at Mount Desert Island High School in Bar Harbor.
“We noticed each other and we talked about playing, but I was sick at that moment so I couldn’t do any more than the matches I had that day.”
Little did Jacobsen and Imnaishvili, a junior exchange student at Bangor High School from the republic of Georgia, know just how much they had in common beyond their European roots.
Both players are undefeated this spring. Imnaishvili is seeded second and Jacobsen fifth for the singles championships that begin Friday at Apex Racket & Fitness in Portland.
Both were top junior players in their respective countries. Jacobsen ranked as high as 15th nationally as a 14-year-old and Imnaishvili was a highly regarded player in her country.
“You don’t know how many times I’ve been asked since I’ve been here about the state of Georgia, and I say, ‘No, not that one,’” Imnaishvili said. “Or people will ask me why I don’t have a [southern] accent.”
The coincidence of being on American high school teams 45 miles apart is dwarfed by the coincidence of their tennis circumstances. For each, success this spring represents a significant comeback in the sport.
The 16-year-old Imnaishvili had not played organized tennis for three years, the result of burnout after years of long daily workouts at her club back home in Batumi, a resort city of 150,000 on the Black Sea.
“It was just a lot of pressure, school and then practicing for three hours,” she said. “It was hard to combine both of them so I took a break the summer when I was 13 and after that I realized that maybe I should just continue my life without tennis.”
Jacobsen’s two-year absence from tennis was largely related to a rotator cuff tear that left her unable to play as she normally did — right-handed.
The ambidextrous 17-year-old native of Kolding, a shipbuilding seaport of 60,000 residents in southern Denmark, briefly tried playing left-handed but struggled with her serve.
“It was not fun being on a good team but being the worst one because I had to play with my left hand, so I took the break I needed,” said Jacobsen, whose father runs her local tennis club.
She also admitted being burned out, but said the injury made the choice easy.
“It was physically not possible for me to keep playing,” she said.
The chance to return to tennis amid a less-intense workout regimen ultimately motivated both to play in the U.S.
Jacobsen brought her rackets with her and began playing on Sundays last winter at the Ellsworth Tennis Center. She also joining MDI’s volleyball and indoor track teams.
Imnaisvili’s return to organized sports originated with the Bangor swim team last winter. The atmosphere within that program led her to the tennis team.
“The environment was so warm, and I realized that any type of sport is really appreciated here so I thought, ‘Why not, I should join because I did know how to play,’” she said. “The spirit of tennis is much different with it being connected to my high school here. I probably wouldn’t have tried it again except for Bangor High School.”
“Seeing snow while playing tennis this spring was shocking for me, but I got used to that,” Imnaisvili added.
Both players gradually have returned to their old form, with Imnaishvili leading Bangor to a 9-2 record and third place in Class A North entering Thursday’s scheduled regular-season finale at Brewer.
“She has multiple power shots, she can hit it that no one’s going to be able to hit it back, then other times she’ll rally and rally and then eventually get to the point where she puts it away,” said Bangor girls tennis coach Jameson Ploch.
“The more you watch her the more you learn, and that’s improved the play of our other singles players, too.”
Jacobsen and MDI also are bound for the team playoffs, with the 5-7 Trojans likely to finish eighth in Class B North.
“I’ve had the privilege to coach a lot of skilled players, and I’m telling you none were as prolific as she is,” said Tyler Hunt, in his first year as MDI’s tennis coach after previous stints at Gardiner and Monmouth Academy. “Regitze has no weaknesses. She has a solid forehand and a solid backhand. She doesn’t go to the net very often but she doesn’t have to because she’s so dominant from the baseline. She’s just an incredible tennis player.”
Perhaps most gratifying to both players is the personal joy they’re received from their return to the sport.
Imnaishvili said that once she stopped playing competitively, she did not plan to return to it.
“It might sound funny but ever since I started to play here I realized that it’s something I want to do and now I’m really excited for tennis season and every practice feels like a great moment to live,” Imnaishvili said.
This weekend Jacobsen and Imnaishvilli are anxious to put their comebacks to the test against the best schoolgirl tennis players in Maine. The 48-player field is led by defending champion Grace Campanella, a junior from Kennebunk-Wells.
“I don’t think that me winning is impossible,” Jacobsen said. “I think it could definitely happen, but it would take a lot of work and I don’t know if I’m there yet.”
Jacobsen and Imnaishvili will return to their home countries soon to complete their high school educations before possibly returning to the United States for college — and college tennis.
Perhaps they’ll get to play each other instead of next to each other at least once before they leave.
“A few people have talked about getting them to play each other, hopefully that might happen in the state finals,” Ploch said. “Something like that would be pretty cool.”