Hitter Miss

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

As Dominique improved in her first six months under Macci, Larechia pulled her out of school and enrolled her in online classes. Then she dug a little deeper to pay for a second lesson every week.

Not long after Dominique´s 10th birthday, mother and daughter sat down to discuss whether tennis would indeed be the girl´s career.

¨I went over the things that come with being a professional player, so she could understand what that´s about -- as much as a 10-year-old can understand,¨ Larechia says.

Miramar´s Sachia Vickery is the top-ranked 12-year-old player in the country.
Miramar´s Sachia Vickery is the top-ranked 12-year-old player in the country.
Victoria Duval of Delray Beach is ranked fourth.
Victoria Duval of Delray Beach is ranked fourth.

Dominique, she says, told her, ¨I want to train and be a professional.¨

It was settled, then. The family would move north to Deerfield Beach, where Macci had relocated his academy. Larechia would commute south to her firefighter´s job in Miami, snatching up every last hour of available overtime, and her husband, Vincent Bell, would head north for his job with Palm Beach County.

¨I can´t hit the ball for her,¨ Larechia says-- but pulling a double-shift is the next best thing.

Dominique´s life these past two years has been more regimented than the most devoted student´s. She wakes most mornings around 5 a.m. and tries (unsuccessfully, Larechia says) to mute the sounds of the pots and pans she needs to cook her enormous breakfast: pancakes, eggs, meat.

Says Larechia: ¨She eats like an adult male.¨

Over breakfast, Dominique finishes homework or, on the mornings she´s feeling indulgent, cues up Tivoed episodes from the Cartoon Channel. She´s partial to Naruto, featuring an animated ninja.

By the time she finishes her ten-minute bicycle commute to Macci´s camp, she´s all business. She seems largely undistracted by the other boys and girls her age.

¨When we moved up here, I lost contact with all my friends,¨ says Dominique, who started homeschooling in third grade. ¨My only friends here are in tennis, and we don´t really hang out because it´s so competitive.¨

¨We´re trying to get the most we can out of the practice,¨ Larechia says. ¨Her time on the court is really just about tennis.¨

Besides, singles tennis is an essentially solitary sport. During a match, a player has no teammates, not even a coach to consult. One had better be comfortable fending for one´s self.

Asked whether she ever wishes she had a normal childhood, Dominique answers, ¨Sometimes -- but not really. Because I know the other kids are probably sitting down watching TV while I´m out here training, and I actually want to do something with this.¨

Dominique has a carefully constructed plan: dominate juniors tennis, get a ranking that will make her eligible for international ITF junior tournaments, and then, in roughly a year, win enough points so that when she becomes eligible to play in pro tournaments at age 14, she can win a wildcard berth.

All that traveling sounds awfully expensive.

¨Yeah, it is,¨ says Dominique, smiling sheepishly. ¨Actually, my parents are going to do all that.¨

This may be news to her mother. ¨I´m only barely affording what we´re doing now,¨ Larechia says. ¨When it comes to her turning 14 and the aspect of traveling -- will a parent be able to travel with her? I don´t know. I really don´t know how that´s all going to work out. We´re trying to just live for right now.¨

If the Bell family budget can´t quite accommodate the world-class tennis lessons and the travel expenses that come with playing on the United States Tennis Association´s Juniors circuit, perhaps it´s just as well. Macci has told them that as a development tool, tournament play is overrated. Competitive instincts are liable to distract a player from the kind of risk-taking experimentation through which brilliant shots develop.

¨A lot of these kids who are winning at 12s and 14s, they know how to play not to lose -- at a 12- or a 14-year-old level,¨ says Macci, adding that he´s seen players who are 20 with the same style they had at 10.

Macci has trained Dominique to try the toughest shots, regardless of the outcome. Eventually, he predicts, she´ll learn to hit even spectacular shots with a measure of consistency. Later, she can learn to be patient and pick the ball for a winner.

Or can she? Dominique is following a path similar to the Williams sisters, who played hardly any juniors tennis. For all their power and shot-making, tennis observers have found the sisters lacking in tactical skills. If this critique is correct, it may be a symptom of the Williamses´ having had too little exposure to match play in their formative years.

Macci, who had a falling-out with Richard Williams, says that the Williams family´s resistance to tournament play was extreme, even by his standards. ¨When they were with me, I wanted the [Williams sisters] to play more tournaments than they did -- I think they could have been a little better tactically on the court. But how could you argue with being number one and number two in the world?¨

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