Dave Stearns is like the uncle you wish you saw more often. He’s warm, inviting and full of stories. As the Minnetonka High School girls’ tennis coach, his favorite tales revolve around the young women he’s mentored through his years on the court. Coaches rarely choose favorites, and Stearns has worked with many great players, but he speaks with a little extra pride about Aria and Bella Lambert.
Both girls began playing varsity tennis for Stearns when they were 12-year-old seventh-graders at Minnetonka Middle School East—a rare feat for one girl, let alone two. Let alone two sisters.
Looking at the girls, you would never know they’re related. Bella, a blonde eighth-grader, and Aria, a brunette junior at the University of Minnesota, don’t look much alike. What’s remarkable isn’t that both play tennis—siblings tend to follow in each other’s footsteps, after all—but that they share the same story.
When talking to the pair, the big sister/little sister personalities are on full display. Bella, a little quiet at first, turned to older sister Aria for several answers, and Aria interrupted Bella a time or two in a way that only an older sibling can get away with. Aria even became the mediator when a question for Bella got lost in interviewer-interviewee translation and she turned to big sister for help, highlighting their sibling bond.
“We’re super-close and goof off a lot,” Aria says, “We listen to music and have dance parties in our rooms.”
Although the girls love tennis and spending time with one another, there is no sibling rivalry between the two. With Aria so much older, Bella can’t compete with big sister (at least not yet, both say), but they love practicing together and sharing time on the court.
Their love of tennis is completely organic; there is no pushy parent behind the scenes or family name to live up to. Aria took up the sport as an 8-year-old, and Bella eventually followed suit.
“I tried a bunch of different sports and quit them all because I didn’t like them,” Aria says. “I tried tennis and loved it right away, so I stuck with it.”
As they got older, the girls began playing competitively and entering tournaments, which prepared them for high school competition. As an individual sport, tennis is more about the personal maturity of one person, rather than how that person fits into the larger picture of a team.
“Age is a relative factor in tennis, and both were very mature as seventh-graders mainly because they were exposed to a high level competition,” Stearns says. “Aria played a lot of International Tennis Federation tournaments and Bella is playing national tournaments. That exposure is priceless.”
Stearns’ praise for the girls extends beyond the court. He sees an inner drive and respect in the sisters that makes them both great players and people. The girls also meshed well with other members of the team—a difficult task for 12-year-olds asked to share court time with seniors. However, jealousy or resentment from teammates was never an issue for either Aria or Bella.
“Both were very unimposing and humble,” Stearns says. “You could see they were confident but they didn’t push themselves on anybody. They were both well-received because of their positive demeanor, and they respected the fact that there were older kids on the team.”
For Bella, it’s helped having an older sister who experienced the same situations on and off the court. Although Bella has faced few issues, Aria helps her whenever she can by pointing out things she notices on the court or offering advice with how to handle the pressure of playing opponents nearly five years Bella’s senior.
Being younger never fazed the girls. Neither girl fears being the underdog— in fact, they relish the feeling. For them, being the youngest puts them in a position of power: They have nothing to lose. The younger girl is expected to lose. The older girl is expected to win.
Yet both dominate the courts.
Bella made the 2013 state tournament, placing fourth. To get there she had to win the sectional tournament, beating players several years older than she. Placing fourth in the state tournament as an eighth-grader is a rare feat, but more impressive was defeating the top-ranked defending state champion, Summer Brills of Mounds View, in an epic early-season match.
“I didn’t really realize it was a big deal at first,” Bella says, “but when everyone congratulated me after, I realized what a big deal it was.”
Aria, like Bella, was successful early in her tennis career, winning two state championships. (With some prompting, Bella admitted she hopes to one-up big sister and win three before she graduates.) Aria won back-to-back state titles as a sophomore and junior, and placed second as a freshman.
To Aria, the loss in the finals as freshman stands out in her mind even more than her championship victories. Sometimes the matches you lose mean more than the ones you win, because the losses push you to the limit as an athlete.
“I was playing the No. 1 girl,” Aria says. “I ended up losing, but the [final set] was as close as it could get. It really stands out because even though I lost it was a super-close match. I was the underdog.”
Stearns can talk forever about the girls’ technical abilities in ways that a tennis layman would never understand. They are well-rounded players who are committed to their craft, and Stearns was so amazed by their ability from the start that both were the top-ranked players on the Minnetonka high school squad as middle-schoolers.
“When you’ve been in tennis your whole life, you treasure those moments where you’ve made an impact on kids and had the good fortune to coach somebody on a high level,” Stearns says.
From an early age, the girls have made an impression on everyone who has seen them play. What they bring to the court is so rare, it’s hard not to take notice. Heather Lambert, Bella’s mother and Aria’s step-mother, knows the girls’ tennis careers better than almost anyone.
“I remember when they both started, Aria would literally skip to the ball and Bella would wear her Cinderella or Snow White dress to practice,” Heather says. “To go from watching that to the ability they possess now is a great gift. I couldn’t be prouder.”