Grand Slammers Hothouse

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

Still, the next tennis legend has to come from somewhere, and there's plenty of reason to believe that that person is germinating at the Macci academy.

Early one September morning, Macci stands in front of two of his most advanced students, Shikha and Neha Uberoi, and imparts final words of wisdom before the sisters take off with their father on a six-week WTA tour.

"I think you've gotta be pouncing on serves," he advises in a manner that makes it clear that he's said these things a few hundred times. "I think you've gotta be very aggressive. Gotta dictate and not to go out there and think, 'I 'm gonna hit a hundred balls.' If either of you gets nervous and tight, then this conversation means nothing. If you freeze up and let the pressure get to you, this has nothing to do with it. At the end of the day, how you handle the pressure and how you deliver under the pressure is what it's all about."

Ten-year-old twins Nimita and Nikita Uberoi are walking in their sisters' footsteps.
Colby Katz
Ten-year-old twins Nimita and Nikita Uberoi are walking in their sisters' footsteps.
Rick Macci doin' what he does best: firing up young talent
Colby Katz
Rick Macci doin' what he does best: firing up young talent

The tour weighs heavier upon 21-year-old Shikha -- who's more serious than her 18-year-old sister in the first place -- because she cranked the whole dream up a notch in early September when she gave Venus Williams a run for her money during a match at the U.S. Open in Flushing, New York (Shikha was ahead in the first set before losing it 5-7; then she went quietly in the second, 1-6). The strong showing took many by surprise, and her professional ranking jumped from 285 to 185. Cajoled by Shikha to keep a promise he'd made, Macci flew up to Arthur Ashe Stadium to watch the match.

Macci doesn't leave the nest often, but sitting through the Open gave him a chance to assess the top players. "There's a hole the size of South Florida in a lot of these people's games, and they're top 15 in the world!" he tells the sisters. "There's nobody out there that's Superman that I saw. Everybody has weaknesses."

If you're looking for odds on the next top-ten player from Macci, you'd almost have to go with the Uberois: Besides Shikha and Neha, their 10-year-old twin sisters, Nimita and Nikita, also train daily with him. ("And one of them has more potential than both the older sisters -- maybe put together," Macci gushes with an ample helping of that '90s-era hype.)

The Indian family is a virtual tennis machine. The twins often train on a court beside Shikha and Neha, which gives Macci the opportunity to monitor the whole gaggle of Uberois. Their father, Mahesh, the mastermind behind the machine, is always there. Mother Madhu is there more often than not. The family lives in a million-dollar home at a Boca Raton country club, where they train at the gym and play yet more tennis at the private courts.

Mahesh has a slender, small build, silver-rimmed glasses, and a full mop of black hair. He's obliging to strangers and a consummate didact. For most of his life, he was in the computer software business, but then he sold his company in early 2001 to Cognicase, one of the largest software companies in Canada. His full-time job now is helping Shikha and Neha train and compete in tournaments around the world. He estimates that he spends about $100,000 a year each for his two oldest daughters to train, travel, and be equipped. Macci's private lessons run about $300 an hour.

The goal is simple, Mahesh explains on the practice court one day with his daughters nearby. "I want them to be among the top ten players in the world. They want that as well. They want to be one and two, as a matter of fact." He laughs.

Neha interjects, "We both want to be number one."

"It's one step at a time," the father counsels sagely.

Mahesh was born in Mumbay, India, and had a youthful passion for tennis, but courts and equipment were hard to come by. He concentrated on table tennis, swimming, and other sports, but he played tennis passionately when he began studying at Syracuse University in 1975. By then, it was too late in life to become a serious contender, but as his daughters got older, he saw talent. (The Uberois have five daughters. The oldest, Diya, opted out of the pro tennis dream and is now in her first year at Washington and Lee Law School.)

"By the grace of God, all five of my kids have fantastic hand-eye coordination," he laughs. The game provides its own blessings and life lessons. "This is a fantastic medium for giving your kids lifelong lessons," Mahesh says. "When you're up four games to one -- like if you've made some money in your life -- then we start to become cautious because we don't want to lose what we have made. If you're too cautious, you might end up losing. But if you're too wild, you lose as well. There's a balance of caution and being aggressive. As you're improving at tennis, your mind is getting stronger; you're getting tougher mentally and physically, spiritually as well. I feel that if they can really learn how to handle the stress of this sport and also enjoy the game, then they can handle any job in their life."

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