Grand Slammers Hothouse

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

"All right, hit the graves," he orders, and the three finish their training by running up and down channels dug into the ground.

After the girls head off to the locker room, Macci explains why he enjoys teaching the very young and those who are just beginning to get serious about going pro. "As a teacher, a coach, the satisfaction I get is to plant this flower and watch how it grows. Whether it grows good or bad, I know I have a lot to do with it. That's what excites me. I guess I get more enjoyment out of baking the cake than putting the icing on and being there in the finals or grand slam."

Always at the ready with a sports metaphor, Macci grabs hold of a baseball analogy. "I get them when they're in the dugout," he says. "A lot of guys get them when they're on third base and say, 'I need a job, and they're already top 20 in the world.' And then they start coaching them. I could do that too, but I like being in the nest."

Shikha Uberoi gave Venus Williams a real fight during this year's U.S. Open.
Colby Katz
Shikha Uberoi gave Venus Williams a real fight during this year's U.S. Open.
The Uberoi family of Boca Raton eats and sleeps tennis.
Colby Katz
The Uberoi family of Boca Raton eats and sleeps tennis.

Macci sounds almost mystical about his ability to succeed with young tennis prodigies: "I'm able to see, I believe, through things. I can envision how things will be in three, four, five years. Not that I have a crystal ball, not that I can figure things out psychically. It's always been something I've had, not just with tennis but with all sports: the ability to analyze and see through things and feel what's coming, an innate ability."

A certain amount of clairvoyance is a requirement of the job. "You have to have a vision when you're dealing with children," Macci says, "to be able to see what it will be like six years down the road when they're bigger, stronger, faster, more mature. What might be a liability at 12, might be an asset at 18 just because of the maturation process that occurs." An 11-year-old's awkward impetuosity can, as he or she turns into a seasoned 18-year-old, become an invaluable measure of unpredictable on-court creativity.

Macci grew up in a small Ohio town, where he played every sport possible -- track, hockey, baseball, basketball. But he especially excelled at golf, a sport in which his parents were both county champs. When his father died suddenly when Macci was 10 years old, however, the family could no longer afford to join the country club. That's around the time he started visiting a tennis court in their neighborhood. "I wanted to be the best in town," he recalls. He never received any instruction but eventually became the best tennis player in the state and received a scholarship to Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.

"I really believe that if I'd had the opportunities that some kids have now with me, there's no question in my mind that I could have been a world-class tennis player," he says without bitterness. "But I knew that top 50 would never cut it, so I got a job teaching tennis." Recognizing that the future of tennis would be in Florida because of its weather and the sport's sheer, unavoidable presence, Macci moved to the Sunshine State in 1980. He landed a job teaching tennis and running corporate tournaments at a resort in Haines City, a fleck of a town in citrus country. He started working in 1985 with a boy from Winter Haven named Tommy Ho, who suddenly blasted from nowhere to become "one of the most dynamic junior players ever in the sport," Macci says.

But his big successes came with Jennifer Capriati, Serena and Venus Williams, and Andy Roddick. "I had no doubt that they'd reach number one in the world," he says of the women. A boy's future, however, is harder to predict. "With Roddick, I got him to number one in the nation when he was 12, but I didn't know he was going to be six-foot-two. His brothers were five-foot-ten. He was an incredible competitor, a feisty little guy. I knew he was going to have a big forehand and big serve. I could see he was going to be a great pro, but to be number one? It's almost impossible to say that because of the physicality of the sport, and it takes longer for that to develop in boys."

Despite his success, Macci is a bit more cautious these days about ballyhooing the next big thing, chastened, no doubt, by the Monique Viele episode. Back in 1999, Macci was touting the 14-year-old as "a one-in-a-million can't-miss prospect" to a New York Times reporter. The coach came under fire by some in the tennis press for emphasizing Viele's stage presence -- her good looks and sex appeal -- as much as her court prowess. At the same time, Macci's second wife, a Boca Raton attorney, was representing Monique's parents in a suit against the World Tennis Association objecting to its rules restricting events in which 14-year-olds can play -- but an attorney-client feud developed. Meanwhile, the Maccis' marriage was falling apart, resulting in acrimonious divorce proceedings, and then, in 2001, the Vieles fired Macci as Monique's coach. Her tennis career since has been unspectacular.

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