“We look back at it and laugh,” said his mom, Anita. “But the crowd was just amazed at this tiny kid firing shots back and forth against players so much bigger than he was.”
Two matches later, Schneider has his first tournament win. More will come.
Over the next 14 years, the Bloomington, Ind., native hones his craft, determined to establish a winning tradition. That’s why he left his home state and chose North Carolina in the first place.
Now, more than a decade later, Schneider’s craft has earned him the No. 24 singles ranking in the nation, cementing his role as both an active leader and a trained assassin for UNC.
Graduation by destruction
Ron Schneider volleys balls toward his young son. A red blur, the same Prince racket, sends shots back his way.
Ronnie Schneider’s father shakes his head and chuckles, recalling Ronnie’s first day with that tiny red racket only a year before.
Overjoyed with his first racket, Ronnie runs onto the court and begins hitting the ball toward the net with very little success.
“Ronnie was so excited with his first racket that he forgot to take the racket cover off,” Ron said. “As you can imagine, he had some trouble hitting the ball, but I let him do his thing for a while before I corrected him.”
In a year’s time, he’ll come a long way.
Schneider swings a heavy forehand at another volley, but this time, the racket takes the hit.
His father is frustrated, but Ronnie looks down at his handiwork, amazed and amused — snapped in half, his first instrument is destroyed.
While the old Prince is forced into retirement, Ronnie has just graduated to a new racket.
He’s earned it.
Today, that broken racket still sits atop his dresser at home as a reminder. By the time he was 16, Schneider had already claimed both the USTA singles and doubles national titles.
But he wouldn’t have reached that level without some bumps and scratches — and maybe a broken racket or two.
“It showed the lethal power of Ronnie Schneider’s famous forehand,” said the tennis player of himself jokingly.
Some things never change
Since his first match, Ronnie has played in countless tournaments against various foes.
But some habits never change.
“Every picture we have of Ronnie, he’s got a hat on and a wristband,” Anita said. “The hats and wristbands always change, but he’s really superstitious, so I don’t expect him to ever play without them.”
For Ronnie Schneider, the superstition runs deeper than what he wears.
During his matches, he has a routine. He puts his towel down before he picks up his tennis balls. He puts one in his pocket and holds two in his hand. When he decides on a ball, he hits the other back behind him — always on the right side of his towel.
“It sounds so weird when I say it out loud, but I can’t play without doing that,” Ronnie said.
Whenever there’s a break in play, he sips his water, Gatorade and then water again. If he’s hungry, the order changes: water, Gatorade, energy bar, water.
His superstitious tendencies offer consistency.
“There isn’t a whole lot that I can control during a tennis match,” he said, “But knowing that whoever I’m playing, and whether I’m playing in front of a crowd of 10 or 10 thousand, those small things I control.
“It’s really comforting for me.”
In the lobby of Shortbread Lofts on Rosemary Street, Ronnie Schneider fiddles with two wristbands on his left hand.
His fingers fixate on the second one. The bright orange wristband reads two simple words: Tom’s Team.
“I always have to have a couple wristbands,” he said. “But this one never comes off.”
In May 2012, an Indiana strength and conditioning coach, Tom Morris, was paralyzed from the waist down in a mountain biking accident.
Morris was Ronnie’s strength and conditioning coach early in his tennis career, but he was far more than a coach.
“Tom really was a father figure for me,” Ronnie said. “It just doesn’t feel right not having it on.”
Never stop the routine
It’s a practice match at the Cone-Kenfield Tennis Center in Chapel Hill. Ronnie’s teammate and doubles partner, Jack Murray, bounces the ball as he prepares to serve.
On the other end of the court, Ronnie tosses up an invisible ball, rears back and cuts his racket through the air.
By the time he finishes his motion, Murray’s serve is already on its way. The sophomore looks up with the ball just feet in front of him. Startled but composed, Ronnie sends back a laser in one smooth motion.
“When I’m waiting on a service, I’ve got 20 seconds off,” he said. “If I take a break for those 20 seconds, I’ve wasted time that I could have used improving my game.”
To date, Ronnie boasts a 58-21 overall singles record, including a 24-12 mark this season.
At 5-foot-9, he recognizes his physical shortcomings, but that has never stopped him from excelling before.
“I’m short, I’m slow and I’m not very strong,” Ronnie said. “I know that I’m going to have to put in more work than the guy across the court.”
But that’s something he’s always done. He looks across the court like he did when he was 6. Then, he throws another invisible ball in the air — Ronnie Schneider is always working.