Grand Slammers Hothouse

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

Other parents remain "plugged in," Macci says, by trying to balance the tennis dream with academics and family activities. Macci points to the example of the Uberoi family from Boca Raton, whose four daughters have been training with him for a year. The two eldest are now in the pros, at a point in their careers when it's make or break, but they remain level-headed about success and failure. The Wolfs have really only started out on the quest, and Spencer's future is a great unknown.

Spencer takes the court for his first match clad in all white: cap, T-shirt, shorts, sneakers. His brown hair is cut short and barely edges out of his cap line. As to his face, nature put special efforts into his quick eyes and strong brow. He possesses a warm smile too, but you won't see it here on the court. He's got his expressionless game face on; he doesn't look boyish.

Spencer cocks the trigger on his backhand.
Colby Katz
Spencer cocks the trigger on his backhand.
Coach Rick Macci pulls David Wolf  aside for some private strategizing.
Colby Katz
Coach Rick Macci pulls David Wolf aside for some private strategizing.

His opponent, Jamal Adderley, is a lanky 15-year-old, a chocolate-skinned youth wearing a baby-blue T-shirt and extra-baggy gray shorts. He exudes confidence, and Spencer can only guess if that same state exists inside Jamal's mind. Spencer serves and wins the first point. A layer of sweat already covers his impassive face. The boys "self-officiate," meaning that they decide whether a ball lands fair or not. This self-policing sometimes leads to "hooking," the not-so-infrequent practice of one player calling a fair ball foul when it suits his needs. Judges roam about to settle down the occasional outbreak of retaliatory hooking.

David Wolf, seated in a white resin chair ubiquitous to Florida patios, relaxes a bit after the contest begins. Shelley, a blond with a penchant for wearing flowery silk wraparounds, whispers an occasional nervous aside to him. A headhunter for high-tech companies, David is a gregarious 55-year-old with the wide, toothy grin of an Ernest Borgnine.

Spencer is up a few points in the first game, but he's not displaying the vigorous moves from training this week. "Have some fun out there, Spence," his dad cajoles. He explains the kind of game Spencer is learning under Macci: "Serve, move up, and chip it away. If you stay up, then you only have to play half the court. It puts a lot of pressure on this guy when he knows Spencer's standing at the net."

Spencer pounds one across court, and it bounces near the foul line. It would have been a point for Spencer, but Jamal calls it foul. From the grassy patch upon which the Wolfs sit, it looked fair. Shelley makes a murmured protest to her husband, but he's already disciplined to the realities of these meat-and-potatoes junior tournaments. Shut up and move on.

Of course, it doesn't help the nerves of either when a woman sitting nearby watching another match offers her opinion. "Wasn't that ball fair?" the onlooker queries. Shelley eagerly vents a bit of spleen.

"He's supposed to be the best player in the Bahamas his age," the woman offers about Jamal. Shelley asks how she knows this. "Well, that's what my kid said," the woman replies, then thinks a moment. "Of course, maybe that's what he wants everyone to believe."

In the parlance of tennis, Jamal proceeds to break Spencer's serve, meaning that he wins a game that Spencer was serving. It's more a psychological setback than a practical one, but it's enough to cloud Spencer's mind. His arms and legs seem to follow. As David calmly puts it on the sidelines: "You see, when they get a little down in their minds, their legs lock up."

Spencer slowly slips into defeat, and the match ends quietly just after 9. He beelines to his tennis bag, shoves his racket inside, and strides toward the clubhouse. He's upset, and the weekend that held the prospect of being number one out of 32 now looks suddenly bleak.

But there's still a glimmer of sunshine out there.

Macci's tennis academy is a stew of talent and ambition that operates out of modest digs at the Palm-Aire Racquet Club in Pompano Beach. Macci is there from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. every weekday, and eight hours of that time, he's "in the trenches" -- standing on the court barking critiques and lavishing praise. Macci is tall and slim -- his first love was basketball -- and he appears younger than his five decades. He wears wraparound sunglasses and a tennis cap. He looks a bit like a bonier-faced Robin Williams and also shares that comedian's gift of a quick tongue.

One Wednesday morning, he stands beside the academy's homemade obstacle course at the north end of the courts. Three 9- or 10-year-olds run up and down a rutted pile of black dirt. Nearby, straw bales and orange pylons serve as hurdles. One girl makes the mistake of bending over and resting her arms on her knees during her break. "Don't show your opponent that you're tired," Macci commands. "That makes it anybody's game." Slogging up and down a dirt mound might seem a world away from tennis, but fitness training is central to the academy's 40 kids. "When people get tired," he advises, "that's when they become cowards.

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