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Jennifer Larson, Orchard Park, New York


She shows skill and grace in a most demanding sport Born minus a hand, Jennifer Larson is a rising star.

By Ira Josephs
Inquirer Suburban Staff

DAVID SWANSON / Inquirer

Jennifer Larson has reached the highest levels of junior tennis despite being born without a left hand. The Orchard Park, N.Y., native has been competing in the U.S. Junior International Grass Court Championships here this week.

Children ask the most questions and adults offer the most compliments. Jennifer Larson accepts both with the same easy grace she exhibits on the tennis court.

Many observers may not immediately realize that Larson, a 17-year-old from Orchard Park, N.Y., plays the sport with a prosthetic hand that extends almost to her elbow.

Larson, known as J.J., competed this week in the U.S. Junior International Grass Court Championships at the Philadelphia Cricket Club. She has reached the highest levels of junior tennis despite being born without a left hand, a condition known as congenital amputation.

And she is excelling.

Larson opened the event on Monday with a 6-3, 6-0 victory over Margate's Dana Gordon-Hartman. On Wednesday she defeated I-Hui Chang of Taipei, Taiwan, 6-7, 7-5, 6-4, in the second round.

Yesterday, Larson fell to Elizabeth Plotkin of San Francisco, 6-0, 6-2, in the quarterfinals at the Arthur Ashe Youth Tennis Center in Manayunk, after rain forced the tournament to move indoors.

Competition in the 32-player field, which includes representatives from France, Belarus, Mexico, and Venezuela in the girls' draw, runs through tomorrow, when girls' and boys' singles' champions will be crowned. Tournament director Ian Crookenden called the event "an elite-level, world-class tournament."

Strong and athletic at 5-foot-7, Larson wears her blonde hair in a ponytail when she plays. On the court, she is comfortable using power and finesse.

Yesterday, Larson made Plotkin work for her points. And Plotkin knew she had defeated a solid opponent.

"She is really strong," Plotkin said. "She has a great serve. She has a lot of courage to play. Many people would feel sorry for themselves."

About the only time that Larson's prosthetic is noticeable during play is when she balances, then tosses the ball on her serve. Larson also uses a one-hand backhand, unlike most women, who hit it two-handed.

She is not complaining, however. And she never has.

"There are some people with harder backhands," Larson said. "But with two hands, you can't do things like slice and drop shots."

Larson's mother Susie said her daughter "can do anything she puts her mind to," on or off the court.

"We didn't know what to expect when she was born," Susie Larson said. "We didn't expect anything like this. Once you get to know her, it's a non-issue. All her friends treat her that way. It's not a handicap."

Larson is the oldest of Susie and Larry Larson's three children. Her sister Brintney, 15, is also a top age-group player and J.J.'s doubles' partner. Younger brother Chris is 13.

Larson grew up mastering tasks at the same age as other children. She learned at an early age to tie her shoes and dress herself, essentially with one hand. She played soccer and even participated in gymnastics for a while. She has her driver's license.

"I always assumed I could do anything," Larson said. "It was never an issue."

While her family lived in Orlando, Fla., Larson started playing tennis at age 10. She started winning tournaments after moving to Orchard Park, and was ranked No. 1 in the East at under-12, and No. 1 in the nation at under-14. More recently, she was ranked No. 23 nationally in the under-16 age group.

Larson said she is completely comfortable with her condition and the questions she says it may prompt.

"Some people don't even notice," she said. "Kids notice it more. It's cute sometimes. They usually ask a ton of questions. They don't mean anything by it. They are curious. Older people say, 'Wow, you're inspiring.' "

Larson is home-schooled over the Internet; she is headed into her senior year of high school. She achieves mostly A's, with an occasional C in science. She also snowboards and is an avid reader of historical fiction. Playing college tennis is a goal.

"I know J.J. and Brintney," tournament referee and USTA umpire Martha Gregg said. "She's not a surprise to me, but she's a surprise to other people.

"I don't think she knows she has a handicap. She doesn't ask for any special favors. She is very natural."

Larson said she enjoyed the competition this week.

"It was a fun tournament," said Larson, who drove back to New York yesterday with her mother. "I like playing on grass and hard courts."

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