Grand Slammers Hothouse

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

When Shikha was 11 years old, she recalls, her parents were sitting beside their pool at their home in Princeton, New Jersey. They asked her whether she wanted to attend the tennis academy at Saddlebrook Resort near Tampa. She jumped at the chance. "I respect them that both my parents gave an 11-year-old kid the option of what she wanted to do with the rest of her life, or part of her life," Shikha says. Mahesh moved there with Shikha and Neha in 1995, leaving his wife to manage affairs at their New Jersey home.

Convinced that the girls needed one-on-one coaching rather than an academy setting, Mahesh moved them to Boca Raton, where he hired a full-time coach for the next two years.

Wanting some balance in their lives, he insisted that Shikha attend Princeton University for at least a year when she was 17. Neha followed suit in 2002. Both couldn't wait to get back to tennis.

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.

"After my last final exam," Neha says, "I took a flight out the next morning to go play tournaments."

Shikha concurs that college turned out to be an obstruction to what she really wanted to do. "I just couldn't wait to get back to training," she says. "It was like putting a hold on my career, you know?"

In September 2003, the Uberois approached Macci about coaching. They'd met with him years earlier, but he hadn't shown much interest in them because "their game was not yet developed," Mahesh says. (Macci says he "didn't faint" when he watched them play.) By 2003, the duo had undergone much physical training, and Macci agreed to work with them.

"He changed their strokes, their grip," Mahesh says. "He's a master in inculcating confidence and mental toughness. He started working on their minds because they already had the physical aspects of the game."

That kind of mind work is plugging away as Macci drills Shikha and Neha the day before they head off on a tour that will include tournaments in Albuquerque (Shikha made it to the quarterfinals) and Troy, Alabama, then appearances in Tokyo, Seoul, and Uzbekistan. After an hour of drills, he instructs them to play a game against each other and announces that the loser will do 100 pushups. After the pair pound away at each other through several serves, Macci scolds Shikha for not moving enough, not taking risks to exploit her sister's weaknesses.

"That's what happens when 100 pushups are on the line," Shikha quips.

"That's the kind of approach that will lose you games," Macci blasts back. "That's a loser's approach."

Neha also gets her turn for a little Macci spanking. After she loses the game, Mahesh, seated in the corner of the court as usual, declares, "Next game, double or nothing."

"No way," Neha gasps.

Macci, who hadn't even seemed to be paying attention to the exchange as he talked with Shikha, snaps to attention. "Wait, wait, why are you saying that? Why?" Macci asks. Neha stammers. "That's why you lost!" he roars. "Your attitude is to lose."

Later, after Shikha has changed out of the fourth wringing-wet T-shirt of the morning, somebody asks her what she feels like when Macci is so critical. "He's not critical," she responds, somewhat defensively. "He's being realistic."

And Macci's realistic appraisal of their future? "To sit here and say that they're going to be one and two in the world, well, it's late in the game," he says of a game whose top champions now routinely reach the top ten with multimillion-dollar contracts before they even have driver's licenses. "Can they both be in the top 20 someday? Absolutely. There's a place for them on the pro tour, but only time will tell exactly where."

After Spencer's loss in his first match of the weekend tournament, he and his parents walked home to the nearby high-rise condo they're temporarily subletting. He'd been heartened by the news that he and the other 15 boys knocked out of contention with the first loss would be competing against one another in a "backdraw" contest. It gave each boy a chance to continue competing.

The Spencer who returned after lunch for his match seemed reborn. Back was the hard-charging, firecracker server who runs himself ragged daily at the command of Rick Macci.

"We talked to him," his father says in a way that makes you long to have been a fly on the wall during that lunch. "You really have to focus kids."

On the other hand, Spencer's turnaround could be explained by something Macci said earlier that week when Spencer lost a practice match during training. "I like it that you're mad that you lost," Macci said. "That'll take you everywhere."

Spencer looks like the young boy he is when he's at home, sitting in a small den that serves as a video game arcade and classroom. His Chihuahua, Tiki, is never far away. He's in eighth grade but attends classes via the Internet through a program offered by the University of Miami. He could very well go the year without seeing a teacher or classmate. No need for a gym class; he's on the practice court from 8 to 10:30 mornings and 2:30 to 5 afternoons.

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