By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
¨What´s the score?¨ is how Vincent Bell greets his cell phone on the afternoon of June 30. The Palm Beach County firefighter is mired in another 24-hour shift, to pay for the world-class tennis education of his 12-year-old daughter, Dominique Henry. He´s been waiting to hear about the match´s first set, to be decided by a tiebreak.
¨11-9, she lost,¨ comes the clipped answer from his wife, Larechia. She´s calling from beneath a courtside canopy, and as she speaks, she steals a sideways glance at Dominique´s sulking form. Larechia (pronounced luh-REE-sha) keeps it brief, not mentioning the two set points Dominique let slip through her grasp. The second set is starting. There´ll be plenty of time for analysis later.
Larechia´s soon back on the courtside bench, unshaded from the 2 p.m. sun. On the following day, it will be her turn to be a firefighter -- she works for Miami´s department -- and Vincent´s turn to monitor the match. ¨I don´t know what´s harder,¨ Larechia says as she watches Dominique scuffing her shoes on the emerald clay court. ¨Being there or being here.¨
It´s more fun when Dominique is winning. But because she is so advanced in her tennis game, she ¨plays up,¨ entering tournament brackets where she´ll meet older, more advanced players. At this tournament in Deerfield Beach, she´ll face players as old as 18. Today´s opponent is Stephanie Cardullo of Coral Springs, the 75th-ranked 16-year-old in Florida. Though Dominique´s giving away four years and about 25 pounds, it´s a match she expects to win, which is what makes the first set sting for her and her parents.
This is a family of athletes. Vincent played minor-league baseball in the Kansas City Royals organization. Larechia was a heptathlete at the University of Florida. With those genes, their daughter stands a fair chance of being able to make her living in sports -- and for females, tennis is where the money is.
But for the time being, tennis is where all the money goes. The Bells have enrolled Dominique in the Rick Macci International Tennis Academy in Deerfield Beach, which costs about $600 a week. Hundreds more go to replacing broken rackets and worn-out tennis shoes. And by this time next year, the travel expenses will start.
¨Tennis outprices the lower class and the middle class,¨ Larechia says.
It may be impossible for two firefighters to fund the education of an international tennis star. It´s just as unlikely that a single mother can work two jobs to pay for the lessons and tournament travel of Sachia Vickery, a 12-year-old from Miramar ranked as the best in the nation among her age group. Or that a doctor in Haiti could finance the training of his 11-year-old daughter, Victoria Duval, who lives in Delray Beach. Then again, these families are each witnessing an even more improbable phenomenon: a little girl brave enough to abandon a normal childhood for a single, awesome ambition.
Realizing the ambition is the most impossible scenario of all, but it hasn´t stopped them from trying.
Victoria Duval´s parents are from Haiti. Every year, her two older brothers played in a tennis tournament in the neighboring Dominican Republic. Vickie watched from the lap of her mother, Nadine, until she was 7, when a tournament organizer happened to see her hitting in a pickup game and suggested she enter the tournament´s youngest bracket, for girls 10 and under.
Vickie, though shorter than the net, won that tournament and has hardly let her racket rest since.
Wary of doling out thousands for tennis academies, the Duvals instead put Vickie on the juniors circuit of the U.S. Tennis Association. It would be expensive to chase tournaments around Florida, but this way Vickie´s talents would be on display for tennis scouts.
The family´s sole source of income is Vickie´s father, a physician in Haiti. But wealth in that nation doesn´t equate to wealth in this one. Salvation came in the form of Lori McNeil, an American tennis player who reached the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open in 1987 and Wimbledon in 1994. In 2005, McNeil had begun scouting for the USTA. She watched a then-9-year-old Vickie play a 12-year-old girl in a Daytona Beach tournament. ¨Her awareness around the court was great for such a young player,¨ McNeil says. ¨Her size and the way she wasn´t afraid to come in, take the ball in the air ¨ It reminded McNeil of herself.
Vickie lost that day. McNeil approached her after the match. With tears rolling down her cheeks, Vickie gave McNeil an insightful account of her tactical errors -- the very same conclusions McNeil had drawn. ¨She had a lot of clarity,¨ McNeil says. She identified Vickie as a player deserving of the USTA´s training resources. McNeil arranged for free tennis lessons at the association´s tennis center in Key Biscayne. Soon after, the tennis equipment company Head awarded Vickie a sponsorship. She´s been getting Head rackets for free ever since.
Still, for Vickie and her mother, Nadine, it´s a roughly three-hour round trip from Delray Beach to Key Biscayne. It´s not an ideal arrangement, says Nadine, her usual effervescence vanishing for a moment. Still, she says, ¨it´s either that or nothing for Vickie. The money I would be spending for something else, I´m spending on gas so she can get the proper training.¨
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.
¨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.
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.¨
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?¨
His conclusion, which guides Dominique´s development, is that Dominique ought to get more tournament play than did the Williams sisters, though still less than girls like Sachia and Vickie.
Comparing the three, Dominique stands out for her willingness to hit the ball as it rises. Where other players seem to take an extra moment to line up their shot with their favored arm angle, Dominique shows the dexterity to adjust her arm according to the ball and thus return it faster.
As Dominique starts moving along the clay courts of Macci´s academy, it´s apparent that she´s no longer her mother´s ¨piece of spaghetti trying to play tennis.¨ Her speed is deceptive, the way it is in all long-legged athletes, but her feet gather very quickly around a ball, and when she connects, it´s with a resounding pop -- a pure, heralding sound, like the crack of a bat that announces a home run. Her forehand follow-through describes an elegant arc over her left shoulder. She gets extension on her two-handed backhand. Where other girls her age often seem to be pushing the ball, Dominique swings crisply through each stroke. Her shots are so low and fast that their arc is imperceptible.
She understands that technique must be her first priority, but Dominique longs for a little competitive glory in exchange for her hard work.
¨I like to go out in tournaments and show everybody else what I´m capable of,¨ says the 12-year-old. ¨They´ve never heard of me before, and I just go out and kind of dominate.¨
Junior tournaments, even at the 18s level that Dominique Henry plays, tend to favor defense-minded players who are judicious about taking the big shots that win points. While Dominique knows she ought to play more conservatively, she simply doesn´t have much experience at it. This is evident during her June 30 match against 16-year-old Stephanie Cardullo. Dominique looks too tentative, then too eager -- often within the same point. She seizes every opportunity to approach the net, but when she gets a ball that she can volley into an open court for a winner, she instead volleys it right back to Cardullo, who in some points is granted two or three chances to hit a winning lob or passing shot.
Bored by trading ground strokes from the baseline, Dominique finally connects on a line drive, hard and flat. A few of these zoom past Cardullo for winners, but most hit the top of the net.
As the unforced errors pile up and the first set slips away, Dominique is hanging her head, her shoulders sagging between points. She doesn´t have much practice at losing either. It´s a hazard for the most promising juniors, who are often shocked that their talent, so vastly superior to their opponent´s, doesn´t necessarily bring victory.
Dominique´s play is arresting, if only for the occasional flashes that hint at future brilliance. In one point, she chases a ball to her right, along the baseline. She can´t set her feet for a forehand, so Cardullo anticipates a soft shot and steps up. Dominique, swinging from her back heel, rips a ball cross-court to the left corner of the other court -- right past Cardullo.
On another point, Dominique scorches a backhand cross-court from her left side only to invite a big shot from Cardullo on the right. It should have been a winner, but somehow Dominique is already there, and her cross-court forehand wins the point. Cardullo´s own mother and coaches can´t resist a spontaneous ovation.
As Dominique gets older, she´ll wonder how she ever lost such matches. This one was further complicated by disputes over line calls -- Cardullo called Dominique a ¨cheater,¨ and Dominique called Cardullo a ¨baby.¨
Intimidation is a facet of the game one can experience only in matches. So Larechia took it as a positive sign that after they´d arrived home from the match, Dominique asked her mother the name of the girl who defeated her.
Larechia asked why she wanted to know.
¨Because I want to make sure I play her again,¨ Dominique said.