Hitter Miss

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

The first two games go to Vickie, who´s rewarded for her patience when Sachia´s zooming ground strokes finally go long. Then Sachia locates her first serve. When Vickie lofts balls near the middle of the court, Sachia dashes to the net to crush winners. She´s rallying.

But the 11-year-old has cunning -- Vickie feeds Sachia a diet of deep, parabolic lobs, so heavy with topspin that the bounces send Sachia against the back fence, once so far that her backswing collides with it. When a backhand from Vickie hits the tape and trickles over for a point, Sachia lets loose a rueful laugh.

Down 5-3, Sachia charges back and forces a tiebreak. Her booming forehand, off a short, soft second serve from Vickie, wins the first set.

Rick Macci coached the Williams sisters. He says Dominique can be better.
Rick Macci coached the Williams sisters. He says Dominique can be better.

With a lead, Sachia´s concentration tends to wander -- and Vickie, it seems, knows this. Lacking pure power, Vickie uses location and changes of speed the way a veteran pitcher who´s lost his fastball still outfoxes major-league hitters.

On one point in the set´s sixth game, Vickie sees an angle for a crosscourt backhand and strikes it perfectly, celebrating with her signature squeak: ¨Come on!¨ On the next point, when Sachia has taken a few steps forward to reduce the angle, Vickie stretches the court vertically by hitting those long, lazy moon balls. After a few, Sachia´s drifted far behind the baseline, and she´s concentrating her gaze skyward to follow the ball. She doesn´t hear the footsteps -- Vickie´s at the net, and she puts away the point with an effortless forehand volley. Vickie wins the second set 6-3.

It´s just past 11 a.m. when the third set begins. Vickie can feel the sun hot between her shoulder blades, her legs made leaden by this, her sixth set of tennis in the past 24 hours. Sachia won her previous day´s semifinal match in just two sets, and she´s bouncing on the balls of her feet, eager for Vickie to take her place behind the service court. She wants to end the match before Vickie catches another burst of adrenaline. She hurries between points, so much that in one instance, the umpire admonishes her to wait till Vickie is ready.

Vickie moves sluggishly between the baselines. She´s more prone to unforced errors. She still manages to win the first game of the set, but by the second game, every point she wins saps her energy for the next two. After an easy forehand hits the middle of the net, she´s down 2-1. She´s not getting the same leg-bend in her first serves, which are floating. She double-faults, then gets impatient during a long point and tries to win it with a big backhand that drifts long. Hitting under the ball, not over it: another symptom of exhaustion. Now she´s down 3-1.

During one point, Vickie has Sachia trapped between the baseline and the net, but Sachia´s approach shot has Vickie moving, and she isn´t able to set her feet for a big shot. Instead, her floater makes an easy put-away for Sachia, who takes the game.

In the following game, Vickie slides for a ball, doing the splits and landing on her stomach. She seems inclined to stay down, like a tired boxer letting a referee count to eight.

She gets up but soon double-faults, giving Sachia the state tournament.

Dominique Henry was 9 when her mother took her to Rick Macci´s International Tennis Academy, then in Coconut Creek, where players like Jennifer Capriati, Andy Roddick, and the Williams sisters all practiced as amateurs.

Vincent and Larechia Bell had raised Dominique in the unincorporated northwest portion of Miami-Dade known as Country Village. For the previous two years, Larechia says she bounced around South Florida looking for a tennis coach. ¨They were saying, Let her be an athlete,´¨ recalls Larechia of those early coaches. But her own athletic instincts told her that what Dominique really needed was instruction in the finer points of technique, and Larechia didn´t trust those coaches to provide it.

Larechia´s theory is that extraordinary athletes like her daughter choose from a much wider array of movements than average athletes. For this reason, it becomes more difficult to lock into muscle memory the exact combination that produces an ace serve or a cross-court backhand winner.

¨Because she can move so many parts,¨ Larechia says, ¨she looked like a piece of spaghetti trying to play tennis.¨

The first time Macci (pronounced MACE-ee) saw Dominique swing the racket, Larechia says, he stopped his lesson. He pushed the basket of balls to the fence and declared that Dominique would not be allowed to hit another ball until she had worked the kinks out of her stroke. ¨And I was sold,¨ Larechia says.

Then she heard how much the academy would cost, and Larechia had to compromise: She would drive Dominique north to Macci´s camp once a week, videotaping the lesson so that her daughter could study the tape for the rest of the week.

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