Girls tennis: Lily Chitambar claims player of the year

Boulder High junior ascended to the Class 5A No. 1 singles throne

BOULDER, CO - JULY 4:Boulder High School's Lily Chitambar poses for a portrait at the Rocky Mountain Tennis Center in Boulder on Wednesday, July 7, 2021. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)
BOULDER, CO – JULY 4:Boulder High School’s Lily Chitambar poses for a portrait at the Rocky Mountain Tennis Center in Boulder on Wednesday, July 7, 2021. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)

Lily Chitambar has tennis in her blood.

Before Class 5A’s latest No. 1 singles champion first picked up a racket, her family legacy revolved around the sport. The Boulder High junior’s father, Kendall, played tennis, as did his father and his father before him. Her parents have owned and coached at tennis clubs since 1998.

Lily’s love for the sport came naturally, and her talent developed along the way.

“When Lily was 3 years old, we had a club in Connecticut, where we would put her in the tennis basket — like a shopping cart — and she’d have her binky in her mouth,” her mother, Donna, said. “She would literally be holding the balls and throwing them off the cart or helping collect them. … And then there was that time when she used the rackets like pots and pans, and we started her cooking class. It just evolved from there, where she just had a racket in her hand since she was a toddler. I can’t think of a time where she didn’t love tennis and wanted to play.”

As Lily grew, so did her dedication to the court. She became relentless, rebuffing her parents any time they told her to take a day off. Practice was the best remedy for what she hoped to one day achieve.

Last month, Lily played in perhaps the most daunting match of her life. At the Gates Tennis Center in Denver, she faced a trial in patience and adversity when she went to battle against Smoky Hill’s Valerie Negin in the No. 1 singles state championship. She had to block out the noise — the dozens of fans who were loudly rooting for her opponent — and just focus on what she did best.

But that wasn’t anything new to her.

“Throughout the season, there were a lot of times where people would cheer like crazy against me and I would get a little annoyed,” Lily, the 2021 player of the year, said. “At state, I would keep calm and just block it out. I was just trying to stay in the match and not focusing on anything outside of it.”

That emotional maturity proved vital to her title run when Negin erased a 5-0 deficit in the first set to take Lily 7-6. When Negin fought back even harder in the third set after Lily split the first two.

She and her parents credit that tough-as-nails mentality to her coach, Nico Todero, who came into the picture just last summer. He took her game to the next level through repetition and exhaustive training that elevated her endurance, speed and skill.

“We worked a lot on recoveries, so he’d feed me the ball side to side and I’d have to run back and forth forever,” Lily said. “It was so tiring at first and it was definitely very hard to handle at first, but we would work on that every week. After a while, I got used to it and I was able to do that in matches. It just came more naturally in matches. If my opponent would run me, I would just usually dink it back (before), but now I was able to get there and hit a strong shot.”

Todero just nurtured the strengths that already existed and pushed her harder than she ever had been pushed before. He tweaked a few mechanisms in her court approach, her reactions and her shots.

That made all the difference.

“She definitely improved a ton in so many aspects of the game, especially movement — how to get behind the ball properly, recovery steps, the right stances for every shot — and ball recognition as well,” Todero said. “We changed her mindset a lot in how we approach matches, the perception of her opponents of how good she thought they were, her belief. … (Mentality) is massive. It’s a huge part of tennis, but it’s putting everything together.”

From day one, Todero’s approach has revolved around helping Lily improve little by little, every single day. She may have “state champion” attached to her name now, but he’ll still keep those small daily progressions the primary goal throughout the rest of her high school career.

When Negin hit the ball into the net for one last time at Gates to secure Lily’s title, Donna burst into tears. Everything the Chitambars had been working toward since Lily was feeding balls to players from the shopping cart had finally come to fruition.

“Because she can be considered to be more on the quiet side as a tennis player, she’s in the background sometimes as far as the whole vibe of tennis,” Donna explained. “She’s been kind of underrated and us knowing who she is and where she is, I just felt so good for her. I knew it felt good for her to finally be recognized because she’s kind of been in the shadows.”

She won’t be in the shadows anymore.

DENVER, CO – June 12, 2021: Lily Chitambar, of Boulder High, wins the state championship of the #1 singles at the 5A Girls State Tennis Championships in Denver on June 12, 2021.(Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)