EASTHAM — You can’t miss Nauset High senior Rufus McCleery on the tennis court. His shock of red hair is accentuated by his white polo with the embroidered Nauset “N.”
“Oh, he stands out,” chuckles Nauset tennis coach Andy Lisle of Wellfleet behind his sunglasses. “Both his hair and his game. He can create points where you think, ‘How did he do that?’ or ‘How did he get to that ball?’ He’s been playing a long time, and he knows how to work a point. When it’s deuce, he’s tough to beat because he will not relinquish one bit. He doesn’t want you to win at all. He will fight, fight, and fight to keep it that way.”
McCleery moves about the court with a confident swagger. He looks totally comfortable, having been introduced to the sport by his parents, Matthew and Elizabeth, when he was six or seven, he says. His opponent on April 6 — Barnstable’s Kyler Medeiros — can’t stop muttering to himself as the match slips away from him: “Hit the ball in! … No! … What are you doing?”
There’s virtually no response from McCleery, who calmly goes about his business. He calls out the score: “Forty serving love.” Before the final word is out of his mouth, it feels as if the ball is already in the air.
McCleery is a puppet master — or, at times, a lion playing with his food. He works Medeiros here and there. There are times when it looks as if he’s lost control of the point, but he’s still the one pulling the strings. He works the rally, putting the ball where he wants to set up his next shot, while his opponent works even harder to stay alive in the point. The two trade ground strokes before McCleery steps into a forehand, ripping one from the baseline to the opposite corner. Point.
McCleery, the undefeated Nauset boys’ number-one player, wins the match 6-0, 6-1.
Afterwards, McCleery goes over to collect his bag. and Medeiros meets him. The two talk, and it turns into an admiring interrogation by the Barnstable player. McCleery offers bits of advice. He didn’t lose a match as a junior, and he’s three-for-three to start his final season with the Warriors.
“Tennis has always been my sport,” he says. “I was doing others, but there was a point where I was just playing so much tennis that I decided to devote my athletic career to it, and I’ve enjoyed it ever since.”
McCleery plays during the winter at the Mid-Cape Athletic Club in South Yarmouth and is headed in the fall to Fordham University, where he’ll pursue a degree in business. “It’s been such a good thing to have and to grow, and I love teaching others the game,” he says. “It’s a great feeling being able to get others into tennis.
“I love to mix things up out there,” says McCleery, a Chatham resident. “A lot of players stick to one pattern, but I like hitting various kinds of serves, from hard serves and soft serves to kick serves, and just mixing it up by coming to the net hitting lobs, hitting drop shots, and attacking or sometimes even defending. I feel like when you can get your opponent off their feet that’s when you can win, because they don’t know what to expect.”
The 19-year-old is a four-year varsity player under Lisle and he has become an extension of the coach. The two arrived at Nauset the same year and have built a great relationship.
“Rufus was pretty quiet when he first started at Nauset,” says Lisle. “He was sort of thinking to himself, ‘Who the heck is this guy? I don’t know whether to listen to him or not.’ But now he’s cracking jokes and ribbing me all the time. His development has been great to see. We’ve been trying to get him to work points quicker, because going with these real big lobs he’d win 6-1, 6-0 and it would be an hour-and-a-half match. Now he’s quickening it up.”
In tandem, Lisle and McCleery have built a strong tennis community at Nauset. They had record numbers turn out for the team this season, and Lisle made no cuts with the aim of throwing players into the mix and seeing how they do. They’ve responded accordingly. The team has six freshmen, which Lisle calls the future. McCleery is one of three seniors with Malcolm Stewart and Connor Pike.
“It’s amazing to see how the program has grown,” says McCleery, who is at the forefront of making the newcomers feel part of the team. “Coach and I have really grown together. It’s great seeing everyone grow up and get better. I think our coach has done a great job integrating new players and giving everyone a chance.”
Unlike many high school athletes who are focused on taking their sports as far as they can, McCleery is more laid-back, and that attitude translates to his game. He’s undecided about what level he wants to play at Fordham. But he knows that he will always have the sport and the relationships he’s developed through it.
“Tennis is a life sport,” he says. “It’s a good social experience, a way to get exercise and to develop as a person. It’s the best sport I’ve ever played. I’m excited to keep playing.”