Hitter Miss

¨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.

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Thomas Francis