By Jeff Odom
The heart of the Fitz-Randolph family rivalry between siblings Eric, Jackie and Lauren can be found at the ping-pong table inside their home.
Eric, a senior, and eighth-grader Lauren are self-described “main rivals” of each other, often playing multiple games at a time. Both agree it can become quite heated.
“It’s not really a rivalry when your opponents don’t win,” Eric said with a wide grin. “She’s never beaten me in anything.”
“That’s so not true,” countered Lauren, laughing.
Jackie, a sophomore, gets in from time to time, but usually watches their epic battles.
“Those two really do go at it a lot,” Jackie said. “I’m not nearly as good, because they don’t give me time to practice.”
Although the friendly games of table tennis may earn the Carrollwood Day School (CDS) trio occasional bragging rights around the house, what they’re doing on the actual tennis court has given them — and their school — much more than that.
Long before they were district and regional titlists at CDS, the Fitz-Randolphs had other aspirations.
Eric began playing tennis for fun at a young age, but his sisters opted for a different route — competitive gymnastics.
“Me and Lauren started off as gymnasts, and we really wanted to go really far in that, but it came to a time where it was just so much,” Jackie said. “It got so hard with always injuring your muscles at such a young age and constantly practicing long hours and balancing other sports like soccer and swimming. Eric was doing tennis, and we decided to follow in his footsteps.”
The two informed their parents of their decision to give up gymnastics during dinner one night.
Lauren picked up the game almost immediately with the guidance of her brother.
“I definitely had a wider outlook, especially because I was younger,” Lauren said. “I just wanted to try more things, and tennis was really great because I followed my brother and he helped me.”
For Jackie, it took some getting used to.
“I really hated it,” Jackie recalled. “I don’t know what got in to me back then. I would always go up to the courts in our neighborhood with my dad, and I would always have the worst attitude.”
Though it was a rocky start, the then 9-year-old Jackie began to heed the advice of her father, Rod, a member of the U.S. Olympic shooting team in 1980 and 1988.
The move from balance beams to tennis rackets soon paid off for the sisters.
They started competing in large tournaments against some of the best players in the state, each earning a spot in the United States Tennis Association’s (USTA) junior national rankings.
Eric soon shifted from playing as a hobby to competing seriously at age 15, joining Lauren and Jackie with USTA notoriety.
“It was definitely weird for me at an older age just getting used to that level of competition,” Eric said. “They were kind of already exposed to it, so it was harder for me.”
When the three arrived at CDS, boys tennis coach John Most convinced Eric to give the high school level a try. He agreed, and before long set the bar of success for the Patriots.
Eric became the first male to win an individual district title during the boys’ inaugural season in 2011 and advanced to the Class 1A state singles semifinals.
Jackie and Lauren followed suit, leading the CDS girls to the school’s first team district and regional title last year. The duo also reached the doubles state title match the year before.
“I think it’s all about hard work and practice,” said Eric, who won his second individual district championship last season. “I think if you put in the work, the results will show, and I try to set a good example for Jackie and Lauren. That’s where my success has derived from.”
Aside from the rigorous expectations that come with high-level tennis, the Fitz-Randolphs also take into account their grades, which are even more important in CDS’ International Baccalaureate program.
At times, balancing it all may be tough, but with the full support of their parents and youngest sister Danielle, a sixth-grader, they agree it makes the work easier.
“I think our parents are most proud of us because we’re able to balance out tennis and school, and we get good grades,” Lauren said. “It takes a lot of responsibility, but it makes you feel better, and it really helps out, and we’re happy our parents put us in this school.”
The trio has aspirations of earning scholarships to major Division I universities and potentially taking their talents to the professional ranks someday.
Though Eric will be graduating at the end of the school year, the competitive, yet loving, rivalry between them is sure to remain.
“We’ve been doing this as a family, having siblings who have basically been establishing good athletics at this school,” Jackie said. “It’s going to be a lot different once he leaves. I mean, I’ll actually be driving after practice.”
“Rough life,” Eric said with a laugh. “They just won’t have their chauffeur anymore.”
“It will be,” Jackie shouted. “I won’t be able to sleep on the way over there, and I can’t do any homework.”
There will be one benefit for Lauren: “I’ll have time to help (Jackie) practice ping-pong too.”