The Right Stuff: Daly Meinert’s rise from young three-sport star to tennis champion

Daly Meinert is 100-3 in his career at Clovis North with two individual Valley titles and one team title from last year. He is on the path to two more titles during his senior season. (Contributed Photo)

Daly Meinert faced the toughest decision of his life: continue with baseball and basketball where he was very good, or play tennis, a sport at which he was great, but nothing else.

He sat down with his parents and they weighed the pros and cons. In the end, the choice was his, but his parents, both accomplished athletes, were no ordinary consultants and their opinions mattered to him. He went with the stringed racquet and fuzzy green ball, even if he probably knew what this meant. Tennis, a tortuous, notoriously maddening sport, in which you are constantly trying to beat your opponent and yourself, is less an individual sport than a solitary sport. Despite your coaches, your teammates, the encouragement, and training, you’re all alone out there.

Daly was 12 years old at the time of the decision.

Now a Clovis North senior, Meinert finds himself at the end of a splendid high school career filled with no regrets, a college scholarship to Cal Poly, two individual Valley tennis titles, and one team title. He has come full circle, enjoying the thrills and victories with his high school tennis mates, all the while playing an individual sport that has turned into the ultimate team experience.

He currently holds an overall tennis record in high school of 100-3, with individual titles his freshman and sophomore years before being upset in last year’s finals while experiencing cramps late in the match so painful and immobilizing that he could hardly move. Last season he led Clovis North to its first Division I team tennis title, relishing in the fact they beat Clovis West, a longtime tennis power. The cherry on top for this season and his high school career would be one more team and individual title.

Meinert was a standout football, baseball and basketball player as a youth but chose tennis exclusively as a 12 year old. He has fond memories, pictured here as a ten-year-old, of the River Park Little League where his team took 2nd in the state.
(Contributed Photo)

But before you think this is just another story about how two determined parents pushed their child toward athletic greatness, you need to know something about Meinert, his family, and their mindset. Let’s go back to before that decision at age 12, when he was 10 years old and playing team sports year round.

Tennis really wasn’t on the radar. His mother, Allison, was a very intense player at UCLA and really wanted to push her son to be a tennis player. She would take him after baseball practice and make him go hit tennis balls for an hour. He was by no means great at the game, and the experience for him was not enjoyable in the beginning, In fact, he found it quite boring, constantly hitting a softer ball than a baseball over and over again. He really loved baseball and part of that was because of his friendships he developed and the success they had. Stop with the tennis, Mom.

Today, Meinert’s eyes light up when he talks of his greatest childhood memories; playing in the River Park Little League when he and a band of brothers, at the age of 10 took the District championship and placed second in the state. He loved to scan the packed stands at those games, loved the echoes of cheers and chants, reveling in the hot Clovis night like a rite of passage. Meinert could hit, and he could hit well.

He also played one year of tackle football in fifth grade at Fugman Elementary and averaged two touchdowns a game as a running back. The game came easy to him even though he had never played before; give Meinert the ball and let him run, evading would-be tacklers as if they were standing in wet cement. They even had a play called “Counter right Daly” that worked one hundred percent of the time. But, he didn’t get to strut his stuff the next year – he was over the weight limit. Imagine that – this running back was too big – he might hurt someone.

And then there was basketball, and he was a standout on an AAU team, using his height advantage to score at will, blocking shots like King Kong swatting away airplanes on the top of the Empire State Building. Basketball was certainly in the genes, but more on that later.

Finally, reluctantly, there was tennis; a game that can chew you up, spit you out, and hang you out to dry. Think the Cobra Kai from “The Karate Kid” no mercy scene – unrelenting in their pursuit to knock you down and keep you there, foot on throat. How many times have you heard of a tennis prodigy, then find out later they flamed out? Heck, even the successful ones tell ghastly stories of their childhoods. Remember Andre Agassi and that menacing ball machine his father built in their Las Vegas backyard?

Now standing at 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, Meinert was a beast of a football player as a 5th grader, seen here playing for Fugman but wasn’t allowed to play the next season because he was too big. (Contributed Photo)

“I never believed a kid that said they’ve loved tennis when they were young,” says Meinert, sitting at Starbucks on a windy California afternoon. “It’s so brutal to start playing tennis. It was not my favorite sport at all in the beginning. The only reason it started to become fun for me was when I started to have success and started to play like a tennis player.”

As it turned out, the boy was better at tennis than anyone had anticipated, which inevitably prompted the question of “which sport”?

“It was a tough decision for a 12 year old to make,” he said. “At that time I played in one tournament and won three straight matches without losing a game and ever since then I really enjoyed it. I started feeling the success.”

Next came lessons from some of the greats including Francisco Gonzalez and Brad Stein, the choice to be home schooled in the 8th grade so he could practice four hours a day, and the grind of dedicating himself to greatness.

Meinert slowly inched his way to going full time tennis at the ripe age of 12 and progressed enough to be ranked No. 3 in NorCal by 8th grade, even beating the No. 1 and No. 2 ranked players that year.

“I knew then I had something special and could grow and develop,” Meinert said. “I saw a future where I could make a name for myself. I really enjoyed being the one guy out there with all the responsibility on myself.”

Meinert has dominated opponents for the past three years with a power game that is virtually unmatched in recent Central Section history. After all, he’s 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds and armed with a family pedigree that has more court royalty than the House of Lords.

Daly’s parents, Stu and Allison, were both exceptional athletes, earning scholarships to UCLA. Stu, from Salem, Oregon, grew up on the track and football field but during his sophomore year developed a smooth and savvy basketball skills set and arrived on the UCLA campus with high hopes on raising another NCAA championship banner in the historic Pauley Pavilion. But that never happened – a couple of knee injuries cut short that dream. But as fate would have it, he meet Allison Cooper, the No. 1 singles tennis player at UCLA who was a doubles partner with Stella Sampras (yes, Pete’s sister) and later her bride’s maid on her wedding. With Sampras, she won an NCAA doubles championship in 1988 and was named All-American, before being ranked as high as No. 200 in the world while playing at Wimbledon and in the French Open.

The athletic genes run ever deeper – Daly’s grandpa, Jim Meinert, was a track star at the University of Oregon under legendary coach Bill Bowerman (who also co-founded Nike with Phil Knight), winning two NCAA championships in 1964 and 66  while running on the 440 and mile relays. Jim is a member of the Oregon Athletic Hall of Fame. Stu’s older brother, Scott, played basketball at Stanford from 1984-88, creating a Pac-10 family dilemma sure to disrupt any peaceful Thanksgiving dinner – dad at Oregon, and sons bolting to UCLA and Stanford.

But now here’s Daly Meinert, just three weeks from graduating high school, a player who could have easily continued the homeschooling thing, foregoing those impressionable and formidable high school years for more four-hour tennis lessons.

Daly Meinert is 100-3 in his career at Clovis North with two individual Valley titles and one team title from last year. He is on the path to two more titles during his senior season. (Contributed Photo)

A few coaches called Stu crazy for allowing someone of such talent to skip all the national exposure and play against the highest quality in the land. But, what can possibly replace the camaraderie of a team high school title or the thrill of two individual titles with the hopes of one more of each?

The pro circuit can wait.

“My dream was to play at an extremely high college level. My parents always raised me to believe that going to college is the best decision. Competing with a team was something you couldn’t get anywhere else. The odds of being a professional tennis player in astronomically low. There’s no guarantees, there’s no contracts. I don’t think I could come out of high school into the professional circuit like some really talented players can. My biggest dream was always to be a Division I tennis player. I see some guys that would absolutely dismantle me that are making no money and getting nowhere. I don’t want to be like that.”

Just like he helped give Clovis North a name in tennis, he hopes to do the same at Cal Poly. He could have followed in his mother’s and father’s footsteps to UCLA where he had a scholarship offer but skipped the big-time, elite feel, instead taking on the underdog role. UCLA is currently ranked No. 6 in the nation, Cal Poly is unranked but their tennis matches are a true college experience – the stands are full of students, the boisterous cheering of teammates, the exhilaration that a team sport can bring. There’s little doubt that Meinert desires the atmosphere and camaraderie that brought him so much joy like the River Park Little League.

With maturity beyond his years, the decision that a 12-year boy made was absolutely the right one. No regrets.

“I am so happy that I chose to play tennis and how it’s developed me into a young man,” Meinert said.. “No other sport was able to challenge me mentally and intellectually and tennis has pushed me so hard in so many ways that I couldn’t have ever imagined. It’s not a regret, I’m happy. I would do the same thing.”