Grand Slammers Hothouse
A throng of teenage boys mills around the registration desk at the Palm-Aire Racquet Club. It's just before 8 a.m. on a breezy Saturday in September as 32 boys, age 16 and younger, await pairing off for this weekend's tennis tournament. A mix of tension, anticipation, and nascent testosterone swirls in the air. Edgy parents on the periphery look down at their feet.
"Wolf and Adderley," the dour-faced registrar calls out. Thirteen-year-old Spencer Wolf shoulders forward and reaches out for the three pristine, yellow-green balls. He doesn't recognize the name Adderley, which ratchets up his nerves by a few electrons. He gains a measure of comfort in clutching the fuzzy balls. The feel between his fingers is as familiar and reassuring as a favorite food. "Court 18," the registrar barks.
It's not a long walk out to 18, maybe 50 yards, but it's enough time to let the pressure cook. His father and mother, David and Shelley, follow, but he's deep in thought now: Gotta remember what the coach keeps telling me. Be aggressive. Play my game. He believes in his coach, Rick Macci. And why wouldn't he? The 49-year-old Macci ranks among the most successful tennis trainers in America. His alum include Venus and Serena Williams, Jennifer Capriati, and Andy Roddick. Macci can sniff out racquet-court potential in young tykes like a bomb-sniffing dog uncovers TNT. Macci's reputation was enough for Spencer's family to uproot their lives in Chicago. A year ago, the three relocated to South Florida to begin Spencer's long journey to the pros.
Thing is, it all feels so much more certain when Macci's around. Just two days ago, Macci stood beside Spencer as the boy practiced his serves, connecting racquet and ball with the bang of a .38 special. Equally liberal with criticism and praise, Macci bragged: "You see, on the Fourth of July, Spence doesn't need fireworks. He just cracks out serves."
Spencer wouldn't mind hearing some of that hallmark Macci hyperbole right now as he takes to the court. Sure, he's a former national judo champ, but he just can't quite shut out the lurking thought that this is the first age-16 tournament he's played. And then there are the back pains that forced him to forego the last two tournaments. Growing pains, actually. He's shot up about four inches this past year, reaching almost five-foot-11. The spurt has left his hamstrings tight, pulling on his lower back. The soreness is less this week, but it's hard to focus when your body feels like a science experiment gone awry.
Florida is mecca for families dreaming and scheming for their children to be the next big thing in pro tennis. The state is home to dozens of tennis academies, from the modest to the most elite, such as Macci's in Pompano Beach, Chris Evert's in Boca Raton, and Nick Bollettieri's in Bradenton. Multimillion-dollar product endorsements and the top-dog crown are in the pot at the end of the rainbow for students.
"Florida and California have always been focal points for tennis, although I'd say that Florida is a step ahead at this stage," says Jim Baugh, president of the Tennis Industry Association, based in Hilton Head, South Carolina. "Florida has done a good job with the senior audience who's been gravitating to the sport over the years. The industry has always gone after Florida players, especially from the average-player standpoint, because it's got accessibility to courts, lots of country clubs, and lots of snowbirds."
Florida is home to 10 percent of the country's 71,700 tennis courts and hosts 74 of the 502 tournaments held by the United States Tennis Association each year.
Traveling the arc to fame and fortune is grueling and expensive, and very, very few of the hundreds of youngsters who flock to tennis schools in the Sunshine State make it to the top. Those who do -- like Andy Roddick -- must possess superior athleticism, unwavering competitiveness, highly developed weapons, and, as Macci calls it, the X-factor -- the elusive something within an adolescent that helps him cope with the pressure, the expectations, and the highs and lows.
Ambitious mothers and fathers are the driving force behind budding tennis prodigies, but they walk a tightrope between supportive encouragement and raw obsession. Pushy, sometimes-abusive parents are almost legendary in the tennis world. Mary Pierce, a French teen phenom in the late '80s, was browbeaten -- and, by some reports, actually beaten -- by her father. She eventually broke all ties with him. Capriati, who went professional at age 13, ultimately became the poster child for a young athlete driven too hard by her father. She seemed washed up at 18, arrested for shoplifting and marijuana, and dropped out of the sport for several years before coming back with a vengeance.
Macci has witnessed the dark side of parents who pile all their hopes and dreams on a talented kid. "They're barely surviving," Macci says of the families. "They have bills. And they're banking on 12-year-old Joey or Mary to be the next Venus or Roddick. So they mortgage the house, move from wherever to Florida, try to do a contract with someone, to take it on the back end if they hit the lottery. A lot of these parents are living through their children."
Other parents remain "plugged in," Macci says, by trying to balance the tennis dream with academics and family activities. Macci points to the example of the Uberoi family from Boca Raton, whose four daughters have been training with him for a year. The two eldest are now in the pros, at a point in their careers when it's make or break, but they remain level-headed about success and failure. The Wolfs have really only started out on the quest, and Spencer's future is a great unknown.
Spencer takes the court for his first match clad in all white: cap, T-shirt, shorts, sneakers. His brown hair is cut short and barely edges out of his cap line. As to his face, nature put special efforts into his quick eyes and strong brow. He possesses a warm smile too, but you won't see it here on the court. He's got his expressionless game face on; he doesn't look boyish.
His opponent, Jamal Adderley, is a lanky 15-year-old, a chocolate-skinned youth wearing a baby-blue T-shirt and extra-baggy gray shorts. He exudes confidence, and Spencer can only guess if that same state exists inside Jamal's mind. Spencer serves and wins the first point. A layer of sweat already covers his impassive face. The boys "self-officiate," meaning that they decide whether a ball lands fair or not. This self-policing sometimes leads to "hooking," the not-so-infrequent practice of one player calling a fair ball foul when it suits his needs. Judges roam about to settle down the occasional outbreak of retaliatory hooking.
David Wolf, seated in a white resin chair ubiquitous to Florida patios, relaxes a bit after the contest begins. Shelley, a blond with a penchant for wearing flowery silk wraparounds, whispers an occasional nervous aside to him. A headhunter for high-tech companies, David is a gregarious 55-year-old with the wide, toothy grin of an Ernest Borgnine.
Spencer is up a few points in the first game, but he's not displaying the vigorous moves from training this week. "Have some fun out there, Spence," his dad cajoles. He explains the kind of game Spencer is learning under Macci: "Serve, move up, and chip it away. If you stay up, then you only have to play half the court. It puts a lot of pressure on this guy when he knows Spencer's standing at the net."
Spencer pounds one across court, and it bounces near the foul line. It would have been a point for Spencer, but Jamal calls it foul. From the grassy patch upon which the Wolfs sit, it looked fair. Shelley makes a murmured protest to her husband, but he's already disciplined to the realities of these meat-and-potatoes junior tournaments. Shut up and move on.
Of course, it doesn't help the nerves of either when a woman sitting nearby watching another match offers her opinion. "Wasn't that ball fair?" the onlooker queries. Shelley eagerly vents a bit of spleen.
"He's supposed to be the best player in the Bahamas his age," the woman offers about Jamal. Shelley asks how she knows this. "Well, that's what my kid said," the woman replies, then thinks a moment. "Of course, maybe that's what he wants everyone to believe."
In the parlance of tennis, Jamal proceeds to break Spencer's serve, meaning that he wins a game that Spencer was serving. It's more a psychological setback than a practical one, but it's enough to cloud Spencer's mind. His arms and legs seem to follow. As David calmly puts it on the sidelines: "You see, when they get a little down in their minds, their legs lock up."
Spencer slowly slips into defeat, and the match ends quietly just after 9. He beelines to his tennis bag, shoves his racket inside, and strides toward the clubhouse. He's upset, and the weekend that held the prospect of being number one out of 32 now looks suddenly bleak.
But there's still a glimmer of sunshine out there.
Macci's tennis academy is a stew of talent and ambition that operates out of modest digs at the Palm-Aire Racquet Club in Pompano Beach. Macci is there from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. every weekday, and eight hours of that time, he's "in the trenches" -- standing on the court barking critiques and lavishing praise. Macci is tall and slim -- his first love was basketball -- and he appears younger than his five decades. He wears wraparound sunglasses and a tennis cap. He looks a bit like a bonier-faced Robin Williams and also shares that comedian's gift of a quick tongue.
One Wednesday morning, he stands beside the academy's homemade obstacle course at the north end of the courts. Three 9- or 10-year-olds run up and down a rutted pile of black dirt. Nearby, straw bales and orange pylons serve as hurdles. One girl makes the mistake of bending over and resting her arms on her knees during her break. "Don't show your opponent that you're tired," Macci commands. "That makes it anybody's game." Slogging up and down a dirt mound might seem a world away from tennis, but fitness training is central to the academy's 40 kids. "When people get tired," he advises, "that's when they become cowards.
"All right, hit the graves," he orders, and the three finish their training by running up and down channels dug into the ground.
After the girls head off to the locker room, Macci explains why he enjoys teaching the very young and those who are just beginning to get serious about going pro. "As a teacher, a coach, the satisfaction I get is to plant this flower and watch how it grows. Whether it grows good or bad, I know I have a lot to do with it. That's what excites me. I guess I get more enjoyment out of baking the cake than putting the icing on and being there in the finals or grand slam."
Always at the ready with a sports metaphor, Macci grabs hold of a baseball analogy. "I get them when they're in the dugout," he says. "A lot of guys get them when they're on third base and say, 'I need a job, and they're already top 20 in the world.' And then they start coaching them. I could do that too, but I like being in the nest."
Macci sounds almost mystical about his ability to succeed with young tennis prodigies: "I'm able to see, I believe, through things. I can envision how things will be in three, four, five years. Not that I have a crystal ball, not that I can figure things out psychically. It's always been something I've had, not just with tennis but with all sports: the ability to analyze and see through things and feel what's coming, an innate ability."
A certain amount of clairvoyance is a requirement of the job. "You have to have a vision when you're dealing with children," Macci says, "to be able to see what it will be like six years down the road when they're bigger, stronger, faster, more mature. What might be a liability at 12, might be an asset at 18 just because of the maturation process that occurs." An 11-year-old's awkward impetuosity can, as he or she turns into a seasoned 18-year-old, become an invaluable measure of unpredictable on-court creativity.
Macci grew up in a small Ohio town, where he played every sport possible -- track, hockey, baseball, basketball. But he especially excelled at golf, a sport in which his parents were both county champs. When his father died suddenly when Macci was 10 years old, however, the family could no longer afford to join the country club. That's around the time he started visiting a tennis court in their neighborhood. "I wanted to be the best in town," he recalls. He never received any instruction but eventually became the best tennis player in the state and received a scholarship to Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.
"I really believe that if I'd had the opportunities that some kids have now with me, there's no question in my mind that I could have been a world-class tennis player," he says without bitterness. "But I knew that top 50 would never cut it, so I got a job teaching tennis." Recognizing that the future of tennis would be in Florida because of its weather and the sport's sheer, unavoidable presence, Macci moved to the Sunshine State in 1980. He landed a job teaching tennis and running corporate tournaments at a resort in Haines City, a fleck of a town in citrus country. He started working in 1985 with a boy from Winter Haven named Tommy Ho, who suddenly blasted from nowhere to become "one of the most dynamic junior players ever in the sport," Macci says.
But his big successes came with Jennifer Capriati, Serena and Venus Williams, and Andy Roddick. "I had no doubt that they'd reach number one in the world," he says of the women. A boy's future, however, is harder to predict. "With Roddick, I got him to number one in the nation when he was 12, but I didn't know he was going to be six-foot-two. His brothers were five-foot-ten. He was an incredible competitor, a feisty little guy. I knew he was going to have a big forehand and big serve. I could see he was going to be a great pro, but to be number one? It's almost impossible to say that because of the physicality of the sport, and it takes longer for that to develop in boys."
Despite his success, Macci is a bit more cautious these days about ballyhooing the next big thing, chastened, no doubt, by the Monique Viele episode. Back in 1999, Macci was touting the 14-year-old as "a one-in-a-million can't-miss prospect" to a New York Times reporter. The coach came under fire by some in the tennis press for emphasizing Viele's stage presence -- her good looks and sex appeal -- as much as her court prowess. At the same time, Macci's second wife, a Boca Raton attorney, was representing Monique's parents in a suit against the World Tennis Association objecting to its rules restricting events in which 14-year-olds can play -- but an attorney-client feud developed. Meanwhile, the Maccis' marriage was falling apart, resulting in acrimonious divorce proceedings, and then, in 2001, the Vieles fired Macci as Monique's coach. Her tennis career since has been unspectacular.
Still, the next tennis legend has to come from somewhere, and there's plenty of reason to believe that that person is germinating at the Macci academy.
Early one September morning, Macci stands in front of two of his most advanced students, Shikha and Neha Uberoi, and imparts final words of wisdom before the sisters take off with their father on a six-week WTA tour.
"I think you've gotta be pouncing on serves," he advises in a manner that makes it clear that he's said these things a few hundred times. "I think you've gotta be very aggressive. Gotta dictate and not to go out there and think, 'I 'm gonna hit a hundred balls.' If either of you gets nervous and tight, then this conversation means nothing. If you freeze up and let the pressure get to you, this has nothing to do with it. At the end of the day, how you handle the pressure and how you deliver under the pressure is what it's all about."
The tour weighs heavier upon 21-year-old Shikha -- who's more serious than her 18-year-old sister in the first place -- because she cranked the whole dream up a notch in early September when she gave Venus Williams a run for her money during a match at the U.S. Open in Flushing, New York (Shikha was ahead in the first set before losing it 5-7; then she went quietly in the second, 1-6). The strong showing took many by surprise, and her professional ranking jumped from 285 to 185. Cajoled by Shikha to keep a promise he'd made, Macci flew up to Arthur Ashe Stadium to watch the match.
Macci doesn't leave the nest often, but sitting through the Open gave him a chance to assess the top players. "There's a hole the size of South Florida in a lot of these people's games, and they're top 15 in the world!" he tells the sisters. "There's nobody out there that's Superman that I saw. Everybody has weaknesses."
If you're looking for odds on the next top-ten player from Macci, you'd almost have to go with the Uberois: Besides Shikha and Neha, their 10-year-old twin sisters, Nimita and Nikita, also train daily with him. ("And one of them has more potential than both the older sisters -- maybe put together," Macci gushes with an ample helping of that '90s-era hype.)
The Indian family is a virtual tennis machine. The twins often train on a court beside Shikha and Neha, which gives Macci the opportunity to monitor the whole gaggle of Uberois. Their father, Mahesh, the mastermind behind the machine, is always there. Mother Madhu is there more often than not. The family lives in a million-dollar home at a Boca Raton country club, where they train at the gym and play yet more tennis at the private courts.
Mahesh has a slender, small build, silver-rimmed glasses, and a full mop of black hair. He's obliging to strangers and a consummate didact. For most of his life, he was in the computer software business, but then he sold his company in early 2001 to Cognicase, one of the largest software companies in Canada. His full-time job now is helping Shikha and Neha train and compete in tournaments around the world. He estimates that he spends about $100,000 a year each for his two oldest daughters to train, travel, and be equipped. Macci's private lessons run about $300 an hour.
The goal is simple, Mahesh explains on the practice court one day with his daughters nearby. "I want them to be among the top ten players in the world. They want that as well. They want to be one and two, as a matter of fact." He laughs.
Neha interjects, "We both want to be number one."
"It's one step at a time," the father counsels sagely.
Mahesh was born in Mumbay, India, and had a youthful passion for tennis, but courts and equipment were hard to come by. He concentrated on table tennis, swimming, and other sports, but he played tennis passionately when he began studying at Syracuse University in 1975. By then, it was too late in life to become a serious contender, but as his daughters got older, he saw talent. (The Uberois have five daughters. The oldest, Diya, opted out of the pro tennis dream and is now in her first year at Washington and Lee Law School.)
"By the grace of God, all five of my kids have fantastic hand-eye coordination," he laughs. The game provides its own blessings and life lessons. "This is a fantastic medium for giving your kids lifelong lessons," Mahesh says. "When you're up four games to one -- like if you've made some money in your life -- then we start to become cautious because we don't want to lose what we have made. If you're too cautious, you might end up losing. But if you're too wild, you lose as well. There's a balance of caution and being aggressive. As you're improving at tennis, your mind is getting stronger; you're getting tougher mentally and physically, spiritually as well. I feel that if they can really learn how to handle the stress of this sport and also enjoy the game, then they can handle any job in their life."
When Shikha was 11 years old, she recalls, her parents were sitting beside their pool at their home in Princeton, New Jersey. They asked her whether she wanted to attend the tennis academy at Saddlebrook Resort near Tampa. She jumped at the chance. "I respect them that both my parents gave an 11-year-old kid the option of what she wanted to do with the rest of her life, or part of her life," Shikha says. Mahesh moved there with Shikha and Neha in 1995, leaving his wife to manage affairs at their New Jersey home.
Convinced that the girls needed one-on-one coaching rather than an academy setting, Mahesh moved them to Boca Raton, where he hired a full-time coach for the next two years.
Wanting some balance in their lives, he insisted that Shikha attend Princeton University for at least a year when she was 17. Neha followed suit in 2002. Both couldn't wait to get back to tennis.
"After my last final exam," Neha says, "I took a flight out the next morning to go play tournaments."
Shikha concurs that college turned out to be an obstruction to what she really wanted to do. "I just couldn't wait to get back to training," she says. "It was like putting a hold on my career, you know?"
In September 2003, the Uberois approached Macci about coaching. They'd met with him years earlier, but he hadn't shown much interest in them because "their game was not yet developed," Mahesh says. (Macci says he "didn't faint" when he watched them play.) By 2003, the duo had undergone much physical training, and Macci agreed to work with them.
"He changed their strokes, their grip," Mahesh says. "He's a master in inculcating confidence and mental toughness. He started working on their minds because they already had the physical aspects of the game."
That kind of mind work is plugging away as Macci drills Shikha and Neha the day before they head off on a tour that will include tournaments in Albuquerque (Shikha made it to the quarterfinals) and Troy, Alabama, then appearances in Tokyo, Seoul, and Uzbekistan. After an hour of drills, he instructs them to play a game against each other and announces that the loser will do 100 pushups. After the pair pound away at each other through several serves, Macci scolds Shikha for not moving enough, not taking risks to exploit her sister's weaknesses.
"That's what happens when 100 pushups are on the line," Shikha quips.
"That's the kind of approach that will lose you games," Macci blasts back. "That's a loser's approach."
Neha also gets her turn for a little Macci spanking. After she loses the game, Mahesh, seated in the corner of the court as usual, declares, "Next game, double or nothing."
"No way," Neha gasps.
Macci, who hadn't even seemed to be paying attention to the exchange as he talked with Shikha, snaps to attention. "Wait, wait, why are you saying that? Why?" Macci asks. Neha stammers. "That's why you lost!" he roars. "Your attitude is to lose."
Later, after Shikha has changed out of the fourth wringing-wet T-shirt of the morning, somebody asks her what she feels like when Macci is so critical. "He's not critical," she responds, somewhat defensively. "He's being realistic."
And Macci's realistic appraisal of their future? "To sit here and say that they're going to be one and two in the world, well, it's late in the game," he says of a game whose top champions now routinely reach the top ten with multimillion-dollar contracts before they even have driver's licenses. "Can they both be in the top 20 someday? Absolutely. There's a place for them on the pro tour, but only time will tell exactly where."
After Spencer's loss in his first match of the weekend tournament, he and his parents walked home to the nearby high-rise condo they're temporarily subletting. He'd been heartened by the news that he and the other 15 boys knocked out of contention with the first loss would be competing against one another in a "backdraw" contest. It gave each boy a chance to continue competing.
The Spencer who returned after lunch for his match seemed reborn. Back was the hard-charging, firecracker server who runs himself ragged daily at the command of Rick Macci.
"We talked to him," his father says in a way that makes you long to have been a fly on the wall during that lunch. "You really have to focus kids."
On the other hand, Spencer's turnaround could be explained by something Macci said earlier that week when Spencer lost a practice match during training. "I like it that you're mad that you lost," Macci said. "That'll take you everywhere."
Spencer looks like the young boy he is when he's at home, sitting in a small den that serves as a video game arcade and classroom. His Chihuahua, Tiki, is never far away. He's in eighth grade but attends classes via the Internet through a program offered by the University of Miami. He could very well go the year without seeing a teacher or classmate. No need for a gym class; he's on the practice court from 8 to 10:30 mornings and 2:30 to 5 afternoons.
He's extremely shy in public, but in the comfort and security of his own home, his wry sense of humor emerges. When somebody notices the dozen-or-so tennis trophies he's won in Florida during the past year, he deadpans, "I'm planning to add to it."
It's no surprise that the driving force behind Spencer's bid for the top spot in tennis is his father. The two have similar senses of humor and routinely wrestle on the living-room floor and pull high jinks on each other. ("Never turn your back on someone in our home," Pop advises.) The stereotype of the single-minded father who wants his son to excel in the sport the old man loves holds true to a point here. For years, David pushed his son to be number one -- in judo.
"I had him in judo from 5 to 11 years old," recalls David, who participated in martial arts right along with his son. But Spencer had always shown a propensity -- and a true passion -- for tennis, so for a few years, he kept up a dual track: after-school practice for three days each for judo and tennis. As successful as he was at judo, however -- he was national champ at age 11 -- tennis teachers kept telling the Wolfs their son had incredible potential at tennis. Once, while Spencer was playing on the courts at the University of Chicago, the coach there saw him play and told David, "Put me on the list. That kid's going to be a pro."
But David admits he resisted giving up the sport he loved. "Spencer's tennis coach was wondering when he was ever going to be in tennis. I said, 'I don't give a shit about tennis. I love judo. '"
Asked about judo, Spencer reluctantly offers: "My dad kind of forced me into it. I usually didn't want to go, but when I got to practice, I usually had fun." Judo was brutally hard on his body, and his mother was eager to see him devote his energies to tennis.
David started having a change of heart after the family took the advice of a tennis coach to stop and see Rick Macci during a family vacation to Florida when Spencer was about 10 years old. "I was one of those parents calling and saying," -- he assumes a nerdy voice -- "'My kid's special,'" David says. He grabbed Macci's attention by telling him Spencer was a national judo champ and undefeated in the Midwest.
"He was very raw," Macci recalls of the time he spent with the boy on the court, "but I saw speed, tremendous athletic ability, great lunging ability, way-above-average hand-eye coordination. I knew he came with a lot. That intrigued me."
Just before Spencer began seventh grade, the Wolfs packed up their belongings, put their downtown Chicago condo up for sale, and moved to Pompano Beach. The Wolf grandparents and some friends thought the move was crazy. "If I think about it," David admits, "it is a bit nutty."
David's ignorance about tennis, he believes, actually keeps him from becoming a parental liability for his son. "The only thing I can do is jack him up emotionally," he says. "If I feel he's tense, I try to break the ice with some humor. I've kept the relationship father/son. I want him to be him."
From a purely financial standpoint, he reckons, the roughly $40,000 he has to spend each year on this endeavor is like the annual expense of an Ivy League college. "If all else fails," he reasons, "he can get a scholarship to college."
In a way, Spencer is as clueless about what he wants from the future as almost any 13-year-old is. "At times, I'm thinking about what I'm going to be doing in the future, and it's hard to imagine," Spencer says. "I think I'll definitely turn pro. And I think I'll go far."
Macci describes Spencer as "on the fast track." He just can't help letting his enthusiasm flow for the boy he predicts at age 19 will be six-foot-two with a "140-mph serve, huge forehand, and a rough, tough, competitive, take-no-prisoners attitude. Anything other than at least top 20 in the world for him, I'd be disappointed -- mainly in myself. And once you get to the top 20, anything's possible."
The evolution of a professional tennis player is measured with a micrometer. In the big picture, every loss is as valuable as each win. Spencer got both during the weekend tournament.
As the backside playoff nears completion, Spencer has resoundingly defeated two challengers and will ultimately win first place. On Sunday afternoon, he takes the court in violet-blue T-shirt and shorts, the kind of attire that's intimidating in and of itself. His opponent is an extra tall and lanky boy wearing baggy shorts and droopy T-shirt. Spencer knows he's going to win. He doesn't know how old the other kid is, nor does it matter. He's found that competitive place in his mind and in his muscles that must be akin to religious certainty.
His mother, sitting beside the court with Tiki in her lap, leans over and quietly asks her husband if this boy is seeded.
"I don't know, and I don't care," he says, not in a testy manner but in a way that makes him sound like he doesn't want to be distracted from watching Spencer. "Seeding is what happened yesterday. It means nothing now."
Spencer races to the net, forehands a return across the court, leaving his rival no chance to move there in time. After several games of this onslaught, his foe gives up running after some of the hard returns. Somewhere inside, he has yielded.
Spencer doesn't let up.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.