Grand Slammers Hothouse

In South Florida, tennis champs seem to grow like weeds, thanks to extraordinary coaches like Rick Macci

A throng of teenage boys mills around the registration desk at the Palm-Aire Racquet Club. It's just before 8 a.m. on a breezy Saturday in September as 32 boys, age 16 and younger, await pairing off for this weekend's tennis tournament. A mix of tension, anticipation, and nascent testosterone swirls in the air. Edgy parents on the periphery look down at their feet.

"Wolf and Adderley," the dour-faced registrar calls out. Thirteen-year-old Spencer Wolf shoulders forward and reaches out for the three pristine, yellow-green balls. He doesn't recognize the name Adderley, which ratchets up his nerves by a few electrons. He gains a measure of comfort in clutching the fuzzy balls. The feel between his fingers is as familiar and reassuring as a favorite food. "Court 18," the registrar barks.

It's not a long walk out to 18, maybe 50 yards, but it's enough time to let the pressure cook. His father and mother, David and Shelley, follow, but he's deep in thought now: Gotta remember what the coach keeps telling me. Be aggressive. Play my game. He believes in his coach, Rick Macci. And why wouldn't he? The 49-year-old Macci ranks among the most successful tennis trainers in America. His alum include Venus and Serena Williams, Jennifer Capriati, and Andy Roddick. Macci can sniff out racquet-court potential in young tykes like a bomb-sniffing dog uncovers TNT. Macci's reputation was enough for Spencer's family to uproot their lives in Chicago. A year ago, the three relocated to South Florida to begin Spencer's long journey to the pros.

Pushy, sometimes-abusive parents are almost legendary in the tennis world.
Colby Katz
Pushy, sometimes-abusive parents are almost legendary in the tennis world.
David and Shelley Wolf uprooted their lives in Chicago to give their son Spencer a shot at tennis fame.
Colby Katz
David and Shelley Wolf uprooted their lives in Chicago to give their son Spencer a shot at tennis fame.

Thing is, it all feels so much more certain when Macci's around. Just two days ago, Macci stood beside Spencer as the boy practiced his serves, connecting racquet and ball with the bang of a .38 special. Equally liberal with criticism and praise, Macci bragged: "You see, on the Fourth of July, Spence doesn't need fireworks. He just cracks out serves."

Spencer wouldn't mind hearing some of that hallmark Macci hyperbole right now as he takes to the court. Sure, he's a former national judo champ, but he just can't quite shut out the lurking thought that this is the first age-16 tournament he's played. And then there are the back pains that forced him to forego the last two tournaments. Growing pains, actually. He's shot up about four inches this past year, reaching almost five-foot-11. The spurt has left his hamstrings tight, pulling on his lower back. The soreness is less this week, but it's hard to focus when your body feels like a science experiment gone awry.

Florida is mecca for families dreaming and scheming for their children to be the next big thing in pro tennis. The state is home to dozens of tennis academies, from the modest to the most elite, such as Macci's in Pompano Beach, Chris Evert's in Boca Raton, and Nick Bollettieri's in Bradenton. Multimillion-dollar product endorsements and the top-dog crown are in the pot at the end of the rainbow for students.

"Florida and California have always been focal points for tennis, although I'd say that Florida is a step ahead at this stage," says Jim Baugh, president of the Tennis Industry Association, based in Hilton Head, South Carolina. "Florida has done a good job with the senior audience who's been gravitating to the sport over the years. The industry has always gone after Florida players, especially from the average-player standpoint, because it's got accessibility to courts, lots of country clubs, and lots of snowbirds."

Florida is home to 10 percent of the country's 71,700 tennis courts and hosts 74 of the 502 tournaments held by the United States Tennis Association each year.

Traveling the arc to fame and fortune is grueling and expensive, and very, very few of the hundreds of youngsters who flock to tennis schools in the Sunshine State make it to the top. Those who do -- like Andy Roddick -- must possess superior athleticism, unwavering competitiveness, highly developed weapons, and, as Macci calls it, the X-factor -- the elusive something within an adolescent that helps him cope with the pressure, the expectations, and the highs and lows.

Ambitious mothers and fathers are the driving force behind budding tennis prodigies, but they walk a tightrope between supportive encouragement and raw obsession. Pushy, sometimes-abusive parents are almost legendary in the tennis world. Mary Pierce, a French teen phenom in the late '80s, was browbeaten -- and, by some reports, actually beaten -- by her father. She eventually broke all ties with him. Capriati, who went professional at age 13, ultimately became the poster child for a young athlete driven too hard by her father. She seemed washed up at 18, arrested for shoplifting and marijuana, and dropped out of the sport for several years before coming back with a vengeance.

Macci has witnessed the dark side of parents who pile all their hopes and dreams on a talented kid. "They're barely surviving," Macci says of the families. "They have bills. And they're banking on 12-year-old Joey or Mary to be the next Venus or Roddick. So they mortgage the house, move from wherever to Florida, try to do a contract with someone, to take it on the back end if they hit the lottery. A lot of these parents are living through their children."

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