It seems clear that Dan Rayl was born to play tennis.
“When he was three weeks old, he was in the Carmel Racquet Club nursery,” said his mother Patty Rayl, who introduced him to the game she loves. “They would hold him up so he could watch me play. He had no choice.”
Although his journey has taken some bumps, the Park Tudor High School junior is the favorite to win the state singles title as sectional play begins this week. Park Tudor begins the Pike Sectional play Wednesday against International.
Rayl, who is unbeaten and hasn’t dropped a set all season at No. 1 singles for third-ranked Park Tudor, was the state singles runner-up last season. He lost to Bloomington South’s three-time state champion Ronnie Schneider, a 2013 graduate.
At one point, it seemed like the Carmel resident would not stay healthy enough to reach his full potential in tennis.
When he was younger, Rayl began dabbling in several sports along with tennis; football, basketball, soccer and baseball. But his body wasn’t holding up.
“If it wasn’t a broken bone, it was a sprain,” Rayl said. “My knees kept me out for a little. So I didn’t play much tennis. When I did play, it just wasn’t high quality.”
When he was in fourth grade, a doctor determined the problem stemmed from milk not being processed by his digestive system. That resulted in severe joint pain.
Once dairy was eliminated from his diet, Rayl began making progress on the court. It was slowed a bit because he was also dealing with Osgood-Schlatter disease, a painful swelling on the upper part of the shinbone during a growth spurt in middle school. Then he contacted bronchitis, followed by pneumonia the summer before his freshman year.
After getting off to slow start to his high school career, he and teammate Sam Geier teamed up to win the state doubles title.
“People do call him a late bloomer because it hasn’t been until the last few years that his game has taken that next leap,” Patty said.
Rayl wasn’t sure he was going to play high school tennis this season. Two of his toughest opponents, Sameer Kumar and Riley Reist, are not playing this season. Kumar, a former Carmel player, is concentrating on national junior tournaments. Reist, a former North Central player, is attending high school in Hamilton, Ohio, before enrolling at Ohio State in January.
In addition, long-time Park Tudor coach Dave Heffern left to take a coaching job at Fishers and was replaced by Spencer Fields, who has coached North Central to two state team titles.
“After I talked with my family and Spencer, we decided it was good to have the team experience because I don’t get this at any other time of the year,” Rayl said. “There is always something special to have the chance to win a state title individually and as a team.”
Fields said Rayl’s play has been impressive.
“In my opinion, he’s only had one bad match and he won that pretty easy,” Fields said. “He’s been pretty alert to his own state as a tennis player. He’s totally aware of his goals and what he wants to get out of his team. As a non-senior leader, he’s led by example. He’s not a very vocal leader, but a total doer.”
Fields pointed out even though Rayl wasn’t playing in the Indiana Crossroads Conference tournament, he was out running at 7:30 that morning.
“That’s amazing. I never had a tennis player do that,” Fields said.
Fields said he worked with Rayl’s personal coach Bryan Smith on a few things. At the start of the season, Fields felt Rayl played a little too far back behind the baseline and believed he could use his slice more.
“That was just my gut feeling because I hadn’t seen him play many matches,” Fields said. “He’s been open to those ideas and incorporated them well throughout the course of the season.”
Rayl said he has improved both mentally and physically from last season.
“My fitness has gotten a lot better,” Rayl said. “It wasn’t really that great last year. Mentally I’ve been better at staying focused on a match and staying in the zone I need to in order to perform at the top level.”