Hitter Miss

Three little South Florida girls make costly bids to be America's next tennis champ

Vickie has an apple-cheeked smile and big brown eyes that narrow with concentration during a tennis match. Her single child-like expression is a triumphant little squeak -- ¨Come on!¨ -- that bursts from her after she strikes a winner. Nadine says she never reminds Vickie of the family´s sacrifices; she worries that it would detract from the joy the girl derives from a sport that dominates their every day.

For all of Vickie´s tennis talent, Nadine seems proudest when she says of her daughter, ¨She´s a very, very happy child.¨

Still, for a period when she was 10, Vickie had grown tired of tennis. Nadine says she could barely conceal her shock when she heard her daughter say, ¨Mom, I think I only want to play tennis twice a week¨ -- a wish that likely would end her goal of playing professionally.

Dominique Henry of Deerfield Beach has a champion´s pedigree.
Dominique Henry of Deerfield Beach has a champion´s pedigree.
Paula Liverpool works two jobs in hopes Sachia can make a career out of tennis.
Paula Liverpool works two jobs in hopes Sachia can make a career out of tennis.

¨I just went along with it,¨ Nadine says. After several weeks, Vickie saw her name slip down the USTA rankings, below the names of girls she´d beaten. She no longer qualified for certain tournaments. She couldn´t stand it, Nadine says, and soon mother and daughter were again commuting daily from Delray to Key Biscayne.

That´s where Vickie can be found on the week before the state championships in Daytona Beach. On the court of what looks to be a 500-seat stadium, she´s one of three pupils listening to the emphatic Jai DiLouie. Vickie´s coach has the sun-chapped nose common to his profession, plus a drill sergeant´s demeanor. At the moment, the source of DiLouie´s ire is a 13-year-old named Chanelle who lacks leg-bend in her serve.

¨It´s like you got crippled,¨ growls DiLouie. ¨Can you explode

After about a dozen failed attempts, Chanelle finally bends her knees and elevates, unleashing a crisp serve that lands just inside the opposite service court. A service winner if not an ace.

¨Magic!¨ DiLouie exclaims. ¨Right?¨

Actually, wrong. There´s a lesson here, and DiLouie lowers his voice to a confidential tone. ¨I tell all your parents that it´s magic,´¨ DiLouie says. ¨But nothing happens by accident in tennis. You have to do technically the right thing.¨

The serve is among the most technically intricate movements in all sports -- comparable to a tee shot in golf. A player must make maximum use of her momentum. It starts at the feet, with the shifting of her weight to the back foot. As she tosses the ball with the opposite hand, she must wait a moment, her hand still outstretched, before swiveling her hips to shift momentum to her front foot, her racket hand bending back like a catapult. As it snaps forward, her arm recruits more power from the shoulder, then the wrist for a slice, before finally striking the ball at the very apex of her tiptoed reach.

When it´s Vickie´s turn to serve, her technique is fine, but her timing´s off.

¨You´re not learning to hold the weight,¨ DiLouie says. ¨Hold the weight twice as long as you think you are.¨

As Vickie grows, she´ll find sharper angles for her serve. She´ll develop her power stroke. What excites her coach is that she´s already found a way to beat topnotch players, so when she adds those dimensions to her game, she could be the kind of complete player who belongs in the elite ranks.

¨Her speed and her ability to get the ball back is exceptional,¨ says DiLouie, who coached Chris Evert for two years. ¨One of the problems we have in this country is that the girls who have the ability to hit hard, they don´t have the ability to consistently keep the ball on the court. [Vickie] not only has that; she has the innate ability to see the spot where it needs to go -- and she hits that spot.¨

Patience has never been in Sachia Vickery´s nature. She was born three months early, ready to confront the world at a meager three pounds. At 6, armed with a tennis racket from the Dollar Store in Miramar, she announced that she would take Serena Williams´ place at the pinnacle of American tennis. So far, she´s keeping pace: While still 11, Sachia (pronounced SAH-sha) became the top-ranked 12-year-old-and-under player in the United States. Since turning 12 in May, she´s moved quickly up the 14-year-old-and-under charts.

Sachia´s family emigrated to South Florida from Guyana, the northern coastal nation of South America. A compact bundle of muscles, Sachia has a game that´s equal parts power, speed, and endurance. Her mornings start on the tennis courts in Silver Falls, the gated community in Miramar where she lives. She hits ground strokes and volleys with Otis Johnson, one of three coaches who take turns with her. Then, in the afternoon, she´s at the Patrick McEnroe Tennis Academy in Coconut Grove to hit with Laurence Tieleman, a Belgian who during his own pro career defeated such tennis luminaries as Roger Federer and Jim Courier.

In the several months since Tieleman has taken a role in Sachia´s training, he´s sought to develop two skills that mark advanced junior players: taking the ball on the rise and finishing a point at the net.

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