The J.C. Nichols Memorial fountain anchors the east entrance of the Country Club Plaza. It is the most photographed fountain in Kansas City. Across the street is the Plaza Tennis Center, which encages a different culture entirely.
For 18-year old Olivia Sneed, it was that tennis culture that caused her to beg her parents to move from Wellington, Kan., to the Kansas City area when she was in eighth grade.
“I love the environment here of all the kids,” Sneed said. “I just liked it a lot and could see myself getting better here. … It’s intense. It’s competitive. But it’s a lot of fun.”
Sneed is seeded No. 2 among 18-year old girls competing in the United States Tennis Association’s Missouri Valley Sweet 16 Championship. On Friday afternoon, she won her first singles match against Kansas City native Michaela Henne 6-1, 6-1.
Sneed graduated from Shawnee Mission East in May and is headed to Ohio State in August to play tennis.
Throughout high school, Sneed traveled often. She looks up to the sky and sighs, trying to think of all the places she’s been.
She’s competed in countless Missouri Valley tournaments, which have been held in St. Louis, Oklahoma, Iowa and Nebraska. Then there were the trips to Memphis, Tenn.; San Diego; Florida; and Chicago. Finally she gives up and just says, “I’ve been everywhere.”
“I was not in school a lot,” Sneed said. “But that’s why I went to East. They were super relaxed about that and understood what I was trying to do with tennis. They were really lenient about it.”
Her family’s move five years ago enabled Sneed to develop and travel, but her father had to be sold on the idea. Sneed’s dad was born and raised in Wellington, a town three hours southwest of Kansas City.
Sneed’s mother was all for it, having lived in Kansas City before. Her father eventually gave in after a meeting with Sneed’s coach, Eric Rand. Sneed has a 24-year old sister living in Los Angeles but says the move probably wouldn’t have happened if she had younger siblings.
“I wouldn’t say they were just cool with it,” Sneed said, laughing. “It took a little bit of convincing. But (my parents) were OK with the sacrifices because they trust me and realized this is where I would get the most out of my tennis.”
Kansas City area talent is flourishing thus far in the Sweet 16 tournament. Earlier on Friday, in the Girls 12s division, Alisa Prinyarux defeated Sarah Weber 6-2, 6-0. Prinyarux is from Overland Park and Weber traveled in from Gretna, Neb.
Fellow Kansas City resident Callie Flanagan teamed up with Prinyarux to defeat Nebraska natives Bianca Rademacher and Weber in doubles.
The trend continued in the Girls 14s division, with Taylor Leslie of Stilwell defeating Sarah Phillips of Overland Park 6-3, 6-1.
On surrounding courts, grunts spouted from the mouths of 18-year old boys and 14-year old girls. Sneed was silent. Verbally, at least. She’s comfortable with a racket in her hand, where it’s been since she was 5 or 6 years old.
Before her matches, though, she begins to get nervous.
“Me and who I am on the tennis court are two different people for sure,” she said.
She likes the nerves. It means that she cares.
“When you’re out there, you’re all alone,” Sneed said. “You have to rely on yourself. I feel like I’m kind of an independent person because of tennis. It’s made me mature a lot faster than a lot of people.”
Sneed will continue to compete until Sunday, assuming she advances to the finals. A victory would land her a spot in the USTA National Open Hard Court Championships.
Sneed’s ultimate goal is to win in the NCAAs for Ohio State, then return to Kansas City to coach for her current tennis academy, Kansas City United Tennis.
“I’ve made friends here in tennis that I’ll have for the rest of my life, which is nice.”