Hitter Miss

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

It´s easier to hit a tennis ball that is on its downward arc after the initial bounce, especially for a girl of Sachia´s height. But that means the player takes more time to return the ball, giving her opponent more time to get in position or rest. Great serve-and-volley players know that their task in many ways is to steal time from their opponents.

Serve-and-volley is a style typically suited to tall players who can get to the net in just a few long strides and whose reach lets them clobber overhead lobs. But Tieleman and other coaches are betting that a net game will complement Sachia´s quick reflexes. Her speed, says her coach of four years, Kevron Bennett, is her equalizer.

While Sachia´s at practice, her mother is at work. ¨It´s a killer,¨ says Paula Liverpool, who still has the South American accent she brought from Guyana 20 years ago. ¨I´m a single mom, and I work two jobs¨ -- as an administrator for Kaplan University, an online school, by day, and by night serving drinks at Club Rolexx, a North Miami strip club. When Sachia competes at the state championships in Daytona Beach, she goes with her grandmother and Johnson. Paula goes to work. ¨It´s an investment that you make,¨ she sighs, ¨especially when you see a child with promise.¨

Vickie is rarely challenged ¯¯ except when she plays Sachia.
Vickie is rarely challenged ¯¯ except when she plays Sachia.
Sachia is rarely challenged ¯¯ except when she plays Vickie.
Sachia is rarely challenged ¯¯ except when she plays Vickie.

Paula at least can commiserate with other parents of child prodigies. Her son´s father married Gloria James, mother of LeBron, and she´s taken Sachia to the Cleveland area for visits. She´s also in regular contact with Venus and Serena Williams´ father, Richard, who has been following Sachia´s career since he first saw her play at age 8.

¨He said, When Venus and Serena were this child´s age, neither one of them could hit the ball like her,´¨ Paula says. But when Williams told a newspaper that Sachia was the ¨next Venus or Serena on the way,¨ Sachia didn´t feel an ounce of extra pressure, she says.

¨She´s such a confident child -- it´s what she already thinks herself. When he said it, it was just like a reminder.¨

Sachia has already tasted the International Tennis Federation´s Juniors circuit, winning a tournament in France in January and recently traveling to Croatia for a tournament. These are stepping stones to the big show, the Women´s Tennis Association tour. Now that Sachia´s got a number-one ranking in American juniors tennis, she can qualify for international juniors tournaments. If she keeps winning, she´ll get the points she needs to qualify for the ITF´s major events. By playing deep into those tournaments, she can turn professional and win wildcard berths in WTA events, where it will take victories against the best female players in the world to get her tour ranking and a chance to play in the Grand Slams. But lately, critics have questioned whether this path is effective. It hasn´t produced a U.S. champion since Lindsay Davenport, who won three Grand Slam tournaments but retired after the 2005 season.

Plantation native Courtney Clayton spent part of 2002 ranked as the nation´s best 12-year-old. Five years later, the now-17-year-old Clayton remains an ITF junior, ranked 67th in the world. This year, she lost in the second round of the Australian Open Juniors Championship and hasn´t reached the semifinals in subsequent tournaments in Thailand, Malaysia, and California.

Sachia expects to move more quickly through international competition. Having just turned 12, it may seem she has plenty of time. But consider this: Tracy Austin and Jennifer Capriati made Grand Slam semis by age 14. Last week, 16-year-old Tamira Paszek reached the fourth round of Wimbledon -- and she´s the 21st female player her age or younger to do so.

June 14 can be the day that Vickie Duval, the fourth-ranked 12-year-old girl in American tennis, proves she´s number one. All she has to do is beat the girl who currently owns that distinction: Sachia Vickery.

That aspiration has led Vickie here, to the Florida Tennis Center, a 24-court complex that interrupts the table-flat prairies west of Daytona Beach, a 215-mile drive from her family´s Delray Beach home.

At 11, Vickie is the youngest of the 64 girls competing in the age 14-and-under bracket of the Florida Junior State Closed Championship. Sachia´s the second-youngest.

In the tournament´s first five days, both girls have marched through a field of players who are bigger and more experienced. Vickie´s lost only one set. Sachia´s lost none.

Sachia would qualify as a rival if the two were not already friends. A month before this match, Vickie was at Sachia´s 12th birthday party. And during previous mornings of this tournament, they could be seen talking and giggling with each other.

Not this morning. They pass with nary a word or glance, the way other girls their age might pass a junior high classmate with whom they´re feuding. Vickie´s dressed for the final in a pink skirt, white tank top, and matching baseball cap. Sachia wears a white tennis skirt and a sleeveless shirt with gray trim, plus her trademark white visor.

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