Grand Slammers Hothouse

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

He's extremely shy in public, but in the comfort and security of his own home, his wry sense of humor emerges. When somebody notices the dozen-or-so tennis trophies he's won in Florida during the past year, he deadpans, "I'm planning to add to it."

It's no surprise that the driving force behind Spencer's bid for the top spot in tennis is his father. The two have similar senses of humor and routinely wrestle on the living-room floor and pull high jinks on each other. ("Never turn your back on someone in our home," Pop advises.) The stereotype of the single-minded father who wants his son to excel in the sport the old man loves holds true to a point here. For years, David pushed his son to be number one -- in judo.

"I had him in judo from 5 to 11 years old," recalls David, who participated in martial arts right along with his son. But Spencer had always shown a propensity -- and a true passion -- for tennis, so for a few years, he kept up a dual track: after-school practice for three days each for judo and tennis. As successful as he was at judo, however -- he was national champ at age 11 -- tennis teachers kept telling the Wolfs their son had incredible potential at tennis. Once, while Spencer was playing on the courts at the University of Chicago, the coach there saw him play and told David, "Put me on the list. That kid's going to be a pro."

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.

But David admits he resisted giving up the sport he loved. "Spencer's tennis coach was wondering when he was ever going to be in tennis. I said, 'I don't give a shit about tennis. I love judo. '"

Asked about judo, Spencer reluctantly offers: "My dad kind of forced me into it. I usually didn't want to go, but when I got to practice, I usually had fun." Judo was brutally hard on his body, and his mother was eager to see him devote his energies to tennis.

David started having a change of heart after the family took the advice of a tennis coach to stop and see Rick Macci during a family vacation to Florida when Spencer was about 10 years old. "I was one of those parents calling and saying," -- he assumes a nerdy voice -- "'My kid's special,'" David says. He grabbed Macci's attention by telling him Spencer was a national judo champ and undefeated in the Midwest.

"He was very raw," Macci recalls of the time he spent with the boy on the court, "but I saw speed, tremendous athletic ability, great lunging ability, way-above-average hand-eye coordination. I knew he came with a lot. That intrigued me."

Just before Spencer began seventh grade, the Wolfs packed up their belongings, put their downtown Chicago condo up for sale, and moved to Pompano Beach. The Wolf grandparents and some friends thought the move was crazy. "If I think about it," David admits, "it is a bit nutty."

David's ignorance about tennis, he believes, actually keeps him from becoming a parental liability for his son. "The only thing I can do is jack him up emotionally," he says. "If I feel he's tense, I try to break the ice with some humor. I've kept the relationship father/son. I want him to be him."

From a purely financial standpoint, he reckons, the roughly $40,000 he has to spend each year on this endeavor is like the annual expense of an Ivy League college. "If all else fails," he reasons, "he can get a scholarship to college."

In a way, Spencer is as clueless about what he wants from the future as almost any 13-year-old is. "At times, I'm thinking about what I'm going to be doing in the future, and it's hard to imagine," Spencer says. "I think I'll definitely turn pro. And I think I'll go far."

Macci describes Spencer as "on the fast track." He just can't help letting his enthusiasm flow for the boy he predicts at age 19 will be six-foot-two with a "140-mph serve, huge forehand, and a rough, tough, competitive, take-no-prisoners attitude. Anything other than at least top 20 in the world for him, I'd be disappointed -- mainly in myself. And once you get to the top 20, anything's possible."

The evolution of a professional tennis player is measured with a micrometer. In the big picture, every loss is as valuable as each win. Spencer got both during the weekend tournament.

As the backside playoff nears completion, Spencer has resoundingly defeated two challengers and will ultimately win first place. On Sunday afternoon, he takes the court in violet-blue T-shirt and shorts, the kind of attire that's intimidating in and of itself. His opponent is an extra tall and lanky boy wearing baggy shorts and droopy T-shirt. Spencer knows he's going to win. He doesn't know how old the other kid is, nor does it matter. He's found that competitive place in his mind and in his muscles that must be akin to religious certainty.

His mother, sitting beside the court with Tiki in her lap, leans over and quietly asks her husband if this boy is seeded.

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