For six months, she practiced one single stroke, an underhanded spin serve. For six months, as an 11-year-old, she worked and worked until, suddenly, it clicked.
"I remember the day that that happened. The ball went right over the net and it had this beautiful spin on it and it kicked right. I was jumping up and down and I was so excited," she said.
Every once in a while, in high school sports, a truly talented freshman comes around and dominates at the varsity level. Thanks to her dedication and focus at that early age, Mirra Manolov might be that freshman for Hickman's girls tennis team.
Already the Kewpies' top player, Manolov went into her first year at Hickman with many goals for herself.
"I wanted to improve my game and I was curious to see how far I could go," she said. "I kind of figured that not a lot of players have been practicing since they were five years old like I have."
In matches, it's clear to see how dominant Manolov can be. She serves and hits her shots with a power that most of her foes haven't been prepared to deal with at the high school level. That is even more apparent in matches against weaker players, many of whom fail to return her first serve consistently.
Manolov started very hot in singles for Hickman this fall, as she did not drop a single game in her first three matches. She especially showed her dominance in an early-season match against Tolton in which she clearly outmatched her foe and won the match 6-0, 6-0.
As the season continued, Manolov kept winning ... that is, until Hickman's last home match of the year against Rock Bridge.
She faced Eleanor Fay, a senior and a very tough and seasoned opponent. Fay took the early advantage, winning the first set 6-2. Manolov then gained the momentum and took a 4-1 lead, but nerves kicked in and Fay won the next five games to take the second set and the match.
That was the first and only loss for Manolov in the regular season, and it taught her some important lessons: the need to be more consistent and not to rush herself in matches.
Manolov started playing tennis at an early age at the urging of her father, Roumen Manolov. The older Manolov is originally from Bulgaria and fell in love with the sport himself while living there. On top of being Mirra Manolov's biggest tennis influence, her father also serves as her coach away from Hickman.
Manolov said her love of tennis comes from the mental aspects of the sport and the individual nature of the game.
"In tennis, it's all you, all the time. You really have to think. It's very mental," she said.
Manolov especially remembers something her father told her about the game.
"It's like a game of chess. There are so many strategies and you have to execute them correctly. It makes you challenge yourself," Manolov said.
In his 42-year coaching career, Hickman coach Jaime Vargas says he has seen players as special as Manolov only five times. According to Vargas, she shares a trait with those other top players.
"It's all in their eyes when you watch them play. They are really focused and concentrated," he said.
Vargas is a firm believer in how high Manolov's ceiling can be, saying she is very coachable, is a hard worker and is very determined. Vargas also added that he would not be surprised if she wins a state title in singles before the end of her high school career.
Manolov knows many parts of her game are strong her serve, volleys and shot selection, for example but she is not satisfied.
"Every single part of my game I think needs a little bit of work," Manolov said.
The Kewpies recently were eliminated from postseason team play by Jefferson City. Individual districts have yet to take place, and Manolov is ready for the challenge.
"My main mindset that I have going into this is, 'Get as much as you can out of it,'" she said.
Manolov wants to use districts as a way to learn as much as she can so that she can become an even better player in the future. Vargas also added that he is confident in her chance to do well in districts this year, possibly even advancing deeper in postseason play.
As far as her future in the sport, Manolov admits that a state title in singles would be nice, but it is not an all-encompassing goal for her. She would love to play tennis at the collegiate level as well, but with three years of high school left, she has plenty of time to make that decision.
With her level of dominance this season and her willingness to learn, grow and work hard, Manolov appears to have a bright future ahead of her.
Supervising editor is Michael Knisley.