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Friday January 22nd

Cameron Morra's unconventional path to becomng a UNC women's tennis star

Women's tennis first-year Cameron Morra celebrates after winning both of her singles sets in the semifinals of the ACC Tournament at Cary Indoor Tennis Park on Saturday, April 20, 2019. UNC beat Miami 4-0.
Buy Photos Women's tennis first-year Cameron Morra celebrates after winning both of her singles sets in the semifinals of the ACC Tournament at Cary Indoor Tennis Park on Saturday, April 20, 2019. UNC beat Miami 4-0.

As the sports hiatus continues and tennis courts remain ghost towns, somewhere in Rockville, Maryland three figures conduct a familiar routine on their backyard tennis court: hitting back and forth for hours, constantly competing and constantly making each other better. 

For many, the spread of the coronavirus has disrupted lives and routines. But for North Carolina tennis player Cameron Morra, it brought her, her younger sister and their dad back into a comfortable rhythm at home.

Unlike nearly every other youth tennis star, Cameron never played junior tennis. Instead, she trained in parks until her dad invested in a backyard court that she shares with her sister. The unorthodox path has brought the family closer and given both girls a unique mentality and style that has propelled them to the collegiate level. 

Cameron has made her mark since coming to UNC. In her first season with the Tar Heels, she was named ACC Freshman of the Year and closed the season with a historic 14-game winning streak, making her the first Tar Heel to make it to the NCAA semifinals as a first-year. She also won MVP and the clinching match in the ACC Tournament to give UNC its fourth consecutive ACC title. 

"Because she practices with intensity and she has such an amazing, positive attitude all the time, she handles those pressure moments better than anybody I've ever been around," head coach Brian Kalbas said.

In her time with the Tar Heel program, Cameron has won her first singles tournament (the North Carolina regional this fall), become a more complete player and met some of her best friends.

The lessons she learned in the backyard never left her.

An unconventional path

"Tennis has always been a family activity," Cameron said.

Cameron and Sloane, who are three years apart, have been playing tennis together since they were toddlers.  From the beginning, their parents knew they wanted their girls to play sports; their tennis careers began casually in their garage, where their dad would bounce them balls for fun. Other sports, like basketball, have faded in and out, but tennis has remained a constant, creating a bond for the two sisters and their dad, the coach.

"We started when we were really little, I was probably three," Sloane said. "And I think they just kind of put tennis rackets in our hands and we stuck with it."

The girls had natural hand-eye coordination, and their dad, David, remembers realizing they were going to be special. He was shocked by the power that little girls could put into their hits.

"They could crush it," he said.

The journey that began in their garage quickly grew into a pursuit that would land both girls at top schools. Cameron is a sophomore at UNC and Sloane is a high school junior committed to the University of Southern California. But even before the journey began, David Morra knew he did not want his girls to take a traditional path.

Junior tennis is widely considered the route to success for top youth players; like academy-level soccer, it provides key exposure to athletes. However, that trajectory doesn't come without a price — many players choose to homeschool as teenagers and shell out exorbitant amounts of money to travel and compete in tournaments.

Often, that significant investment doesn't pay off, something David was familiar with.

"Most of the junior players that we knew, who were tops in the country at 10 or 12 years old, disappeared," he said. "They are either not in the rankings anymore, don't play tennis anymore, or turned out to not be great. So we completely focused on — which we still do — just getting better all the time."

Instead of traveling to tournaments, the girls practiced in parks, training several hours a day with their dad. Eventually, David decided to measure out their backyard in Rockville and get the necessary permits to build a makeshift tennis court for the girls, ramping up the training regimen as the girls became more competitive. 

However, practicing from the comfort of their homes didn't make training any easier — their father did not shy away from pushing his girls towards success.

The challenge strengthened the sisters’ relationships. Struggling through the tough days has made the family close and has taught them to rely on family through hard practices and decisions.

"We work hard and then it doesn't affect the rest of the day, whether practice went good or bad," David said.  

'A family affair'

Cameron, Sloane and David all describe the Morra family as incredibly close. While they share tennis, they also share the personal aspects of their lives as well, like trips to Disney parks and sister sleepovers at Cameron's Chapel Hill apartment.

Sloane and Cameron both said that they were each other's "built-in practice partners and best friends," and Sloane gives credit to the sport for building the girls' relationship. She said the biggest gift that tennis has given her is a relationship with her sister, who she aspires to be like.

Tennis has provided bonding experiences for the rest of the family as well. Cameron's mom Elizabeth, who isn't a tennis player herself, helps with training by picking up balls, makes snacks and is always there to cheer on her daughters when they compete.

"My family does everything for me, my mom is involved too,” Cameron said. “It really is just a family affair.”

For Cameron, her parents' dedication has always been an inspiration. More than famous tennis players or professional athletes, she looks to her parents as role models.

"I've looked up to my parents my whole life," Cameron said. "How hard they've worked and how dedicated they are to everything they do and how they've had so much success because of the hard work they've put in.”

Cameron, Sloane and David Morra share a competitive drive — while the girls work to make their game better, David works to improve their training.

His hyper-focus on his daughters has been an advantage for both girls. Most tennis players are trained in academies where a coach's focus is divided among several players. Many players switch coaches as their level increases. 

But David has watched almost every one of Cameron's matches. Extensive experience watching her has given him a unique ability to focus on specific aspects of her game.

"He cares so much and he's put so much effort into the two of us," Cameron said. "We're so lucky to have him."

The nontraditional training path has made the family more responsible for the outcome of all their hard work. While their father is open to advice from people in the tennis world, the ultimate decision is always made by the four of them, sitting around a table, together.

"Whatever happens, the responsibility lies at home," David said. "So, we can't blame anybody else."

From the backyard to the big stage

Initially, Cameron's path limited her recruiting exposure. But by her sophomore year of high school, college offers started coming. 

That next summer, a couple of big wins meant her name started coming up in the tennis community. Once the offers began piling up, Cameron looked at schools to see where she wanted to play. 

She began on the West Coast but never found just the right fit. She and her family wanted to find a school that could improve both her academic and athletic abilities, and UNC seemed to be a natural fit. Like other decisions, the family sat down together to figure it out. It  didn't hurt that her dad liked the coach.

"That's why people go to North Carolina," David said. "Not only because it's a really good school, but because Brian Kalbas is the coach."

Her opportunity to play at UNC also required trust from Kalbas, who had never seen Cameron play before offering her a scholarship. Instead he trusted the confidence and character Cameron exhibited.

"There's two things that I don't sacrifice (in recruiting), and that's attitude — a real positive attitude — and somebody that works really hard," Kalbas said. "And Cam, you could tell from the very beginning that she had that real positive demeanor and a real strong work ethic."

"Just getting the opportunity to play at Carolina, that in itself, makes the entire process so worth it," Cameron said.

Cameron's adjustment from being an individual to a teammate has been almost seamless. Kalbas said Cameron's best trait is being a great teammate. By pushing herself, she forces her teammates to constantly improve as well.

"She has everything that you want in a professional approach and athlete. She's never had a bad practice, she's never had a bad moment, she doesn't really ever get down in practices," he said. "... She tries to do the best she can for the Tar Heel program every single day."

So far, an unconventional path hasn't stopped Cameron Morra.

"She's a special person," he said. "She's probably a better person than she is a tennis player."

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Sloane Morra's high school year. She reclassified and is a junior, not a senior.

@MaryMacPorter1

@DTHSports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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