During the doldrums of a global pandemic, Jacqueline O’Neill built a grass tennis court.
It wasn’t built from scratch, but still, she was very resourceful with her grandmother’s back yard. Shirley Yuen appreciated her grand-daughter’s drive, often cheering her on during those sessions.
“There’s definitely some bumps on the grass, but I did three-quarters of a court, enough for me to serve,” said O’Neill, who won the ILH girls singles championship on Saturday. “Just the service box on the other side. I had an old, portable net and I measured out the whole half-court so I was serving into the bushes. I’d search for about 100 balls.”
Fetching her own served tennis balls didn’t deter O’Neill.
“The longest I went was an hour-and-a-half,” she said. “My grandma would pull up a chair and watch me. ‘Oh, nice serve.’”
O’Neill outlasted top-seeded Kylie Canubida of Mid-Pacific in the title match 6-3, 5-6 (5), 6-2, bringing an end to what was possibly the longest ILH tennis tournament in history.The title quest in the ILH tournament began on a Saturday (May 8) and ended on a Saturday (May 15). During the eight-day marathon, the Punahou senior and her opponents found themselves in beat-sundown mode. The semifinal and final rounds began at 4:30 p.m. — much later than start times for baseball and softball games (3 p.m.). With no lights at ‘Iolani’s tennis facility, O’Neill found herself on either end of the momentum spectrum each time a match was called due to darkness.
The tourney was live streamed each day with one exception — the championship match on Saturday morning. That left teammates and a hearty group of onlookers leering in from the nearby parking lot adjacent to the tennis courts at ‘Iolani School.
It was a surreal, fitting end to a tournament during a global pandemic.
“Initially, the tournament was supposed to end on Thursday, but the semifinals on Wednesday ended because it got dark. We started at 4:30, and at the end of the second set we have to stop and come back 3:30 the next day and play either the finals or semifinal playoff,” O’Neill said.
When the semifinal resumed on Thursday, it was a quick rest before the title match began.
“I end up winning and they give me 15-20 minutes. We start 4:30, 445, go to the end of the second set again and stop again because of darkness,” she said.
By this point, she had spent almost as much time on ‘Iolani’s campus during the week as her own.
“Friday, we go back and this time, it’s raining on and off. We got on and off three, four times, so we only end the second set and I lose it. Then they call it, just come back tomorrow,” she said.
Canubida and O’Neill were unbeaten during the regular season.
“The last time I played her was four or five years ago,” O’Neill said. “Kylie is a very steady player, really good angles, overall very solid. It was kind of a battle who would dictate the point first.”
After winning the first set, Canubida saw opportunity and seized it.
“I was up in the second set, but got a little complacent. Kylie’s a fighter and she started dictating and became the aggressor and took it from me. I was focusing too much on finishing my high school career, so to speak. Props to her,” O’Neill said.
Canubida evened the match, and darkness set in.
“In that way, a break was almost beneficial to me. The first delay, I was up with all the momentum. Then the next day, I had to get back momentum,” O’Neill said. “On Saturday, I refocused and I kind of said, I’m not going to have a repeat of last night. I have to take it and not worry about the overall outcome. Just go out there and play my game. If she beats me, it won’t be me beating myself.”
Months of playing against girls and boys, women and men in random matches — O’Neill says there’s an app for these loosely organized competitions — left her more comfortable with an aggressive style. She returned to it in set three.
“I’m not really a grinder like most girls. I train more with guys and I don’t normally play defensive,” O’Neill said.
As a freshman in 2018, O’Neill teamed up with Cosette Wu to win the ILH girls doubles title, finishing third at the state tournament. That made her a second-generation ILH doubles champ, following in the footsteps of her mother, Andrea Yuen.
In ’19, O’Neill and Wu placed second in the ILH and lost in the state final. Then came the cancelled ’20 spring season.
“It would’ve been close because Waiakea had good girls. Usually, tennis starts in February s owe got half of the regular season,” said O’Neill, who was playing singles. “(Wu) was online learning, so she didn’t play.”
Now, she is the ILH singles champion. When AP exams end this week, it might be time for a short break. Then, training through the summer before she attends Cal State Northridge.
“I’ll be going up there in late August. My sister’s up there in San Diego. Some of my friends are going to UCLA. I met my team and I’m excited to go up there,” O’Neill said.
Some of the Cal State Northridge veterans will repeat next season because of the NCAA’s exemption due to the pandemic. O’Neill is embracing the unique situation.
“I think four or five will be seniors or (repeat) seniors because of corona. It’ll definitely be a good challenge taking them on. Every day, I’ll be training with very high quality players,” she said. “That always pushes me to do better.”
Top 3 movies/shows
1. “Money Heist.”
2. “Gossip Girls.”
“They just removed it from Netflix. I was on season five. They have six seasons.”
3. “Vampire Diaries.”
Top 3 foods/snacks/drinks
1. Cheez-it baked snack crackers.
“I get the big bag from Safeway.”
3. Clausen pickles, pickle juice.
“When I need something after a tournament, I’ll drink a glass of pickle juice when I get home that day. (For cramping) I’ve seen people eat mustard. I have actual salt tablets. I’ve had them prescribed when I was going up to (USTA) Zonals. The top six girls and boys go up to play other states. So we were going up to Utah and it’s hot and elevation, so my doctor said I can use (salt tablets). You have to swallow it like a pill. I never cramped, so I think it made a difference. I take it preventatively, taking two a day. Without salt you can’t retain water. Your visor, sweat will crystalize.”
Top 3 music artists
1. Olivia Rodrigo – “Good 4 U.”
2. Clairo – “Closer to You.”
3. Tate McRae – “bad ones.”
New life skill: Built a tennis court on grass.
“Shout out to my varsity team, my coaches on varsity, my trainer, Dominic Ahuna, my individual coach Nikola Petrov, and then my parents (Andrea Yuen and Ralph O’Neill).”