Considering how many top girls' players recently have left their high school teams, the question had to be asked of Melissa Esmero, the region's No. 1-ranked 16-and-under player.
Was she playing for Mater Dei this season?
"I respect what they do," Esmero said of the players who chose not to play for their schools. "Some people work differently. But I like my team a lot and I would never leave them. You get a really good connection with them. I learn a lot about how a team works playing high school tennis and I've really formed a bond with my teammates. I love team tennis."
Corona del Mar Coach Tim Mang, who had two top players opt not to play, said he wishes more star players would approach high school tennis like Esmero.
"She's great," Mang said. "She's a team girl. No ego. There's a role model for other kids. That's a class act."
To Esmero, it's not an act. She treats her teammates with as much respect as she gives her sport and her long-time coach, Wojtek Pietrowski.
"I think tennis is a great sport," she said. "To me, it stands out. You have to remember that all the hard work you put into the sport will eventually pay off."
Esmero, 16, began all the hard work six years ago when she started taking lessons from Pietrowski, a pro at Los Caballeros Racquet Club. Pietrowski remembers Esmero's first few strokes and they were not a thing of beauty.
"She was a tiny girl," Pietrowski said. "It was hard for her to hold the racquet with one hand."
Esmero had been a gymnast, like her sister Judy, but there was something about tennis that captured her attention.
"I thought, 'Wow, you can hit the ball really hard,' " she said.
Once she began swinging the racket with two hands from both sides, Esmero began to hit the ball even harder. When she began to grow, Pietrowski tried to convert Esmero to a one-handed player.
"Her forehand wasn't close to what it was and you could see, she wasn't comfortable," Pietrowski said. "So we kept her with two hands on the racket."
If it can work for Monica Seles, Pietrowski figured it could work for Esmero.
"It's actually been an advantage for her," Pietrowski said. "She could always hit the ball harder than boys her age when she was coming up. And she's always had to be so much quicker than the other girls because she's had to have that extra time for racket preparation."
Esmero's advantage over other players has been her quickness and her solid ground strokes, but Pietrowski said her mental game has not always been what it could be. But that changed this summer when Esmero won the Southern California Sectionals in the girls' 16 division, beating top-seeded Luana Magnani of Pasadena in the semifinals and second-seeded Amber Liu of La Mesa, 6-2, 7-5, in the finals. Esmero also went undefeated in the Zonals--a national team competition--and finished the year ranked among the top 20 nationally.
"Sometimes, it's been hard for her to believe that she could beat the good players," Pietrowski said. "But before the match [with Liu], she told me, 'I believe I can do it.' I told her I've been waiting so long for her to say that."
As Esmero's confidence grew, so did her game. She finally began stepping inside the baseline and coming to the net.
"She's just flying around the court now," Pietrowski said. "She's physically much stronger and she's playing more aggressively."
But she's also keeping things in perspective. Even though she devotes up to three hours a day on developing her game, Esmero hasn't forgotten that she's still a kid.
"I do have a life," Esmero said. "Like today, I went to the movies with my friends. I like tennis, but it's not everything. You can't let it consume you."