Satellite tour grounds this recreational player

In open qualifying, writer learns youth is served

July 26, 1999|By Diane Mikulis | Diane Mikulis,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

If you're planning a career in competitive tennis, you have to start early -- by age 8 or 9. I suspected this was the case, and had it confirmed yesterday while playing in the open qualifying round of the U.S. Tennis Association Women's Satellite Tour of Baltimore at Druid Hill Park Tennis Center.

Thirty-six young women -- some as young as 14 -- entered the competition. The average age was 19 or 20.

As a 41-year-old recreational player who has only been playing tennis for nine months, I wouldn't normally have considered entering. But then this assignment for The Sun came up and I couldn't say no.

Now, I had no delusions of actually winning the $10,000 purse or even of qualifying for main draw play. But I thought that since anyone can enter an open qualifier, there might be a few people who were in my league. Wrong!

The event is one of a series of satellite tournaments around the country run by the USTA. It is designed for up-and-coming young players who can establish or raise their rankings, earn points and move up to bigger and better things.

Twenty-four players are seeded in the main draw, which begins tomorrow, and four players from the qualifying rounds will join them.

Registration was held Saturday. As I signed in, I glanced at the birth years of the other players -- mostly 1970s and '80s. I was immediately self-conscious about being the only player born before 1960.

After registering I talked with another player, Vanja Mikovic, a 14-year-old from Yugoslavia. Vanja began playing tennis at the age of 6 and has competed in many tournaments. This is her first USTA satellite tournament.

She arrived in the United States in November to attend a tennis academy in Florida, and due to the situation in her home country, has stayed here. She currently lives in Florida with Patty Jankovich, a relative and her travel companion for this competition.

I watched her practice with another young woman and I realized that Mikovic packed a lot of power and control into her 14-year-old body.

On my drive from Howard County to the park yesterday morning, I couldn't help but wonder what I was in for -- could I get through this without getting hurt or embarrassing myself too much? Would I be a disappointing competitor for my opponent?

Once there, I learned that I was to play in the second time slot on the stadium court, the one with the grandstand. I just hoped no one would be sitting there at the time.

Five courts would be used with four sequential matches on each.

The women came from various places with 13 from the Baltimore-Washington area. Others hailed from New York, Florida, the Midwest, Canada, the Caribbean and even New Zealand.

As I sat on the grass waiting, I took in the scene around me. Most of the 30 or so spectators sat quietly in the shade of the tall trees while a few USTA officials observed the play. A gentle breeze rustled the tree branches and made the already 90-degree day almost pleasant.

The quiet was punctuated by the solid hits of the two young women playing the first match. Their serves were powerful and accurate, and their rallies were grueling. Their emotions, however, were kept in check -- there was no expression of joy or disappointment when a point was won or lost.

Then it was game time. My opponent was Andrea Nathan, 21, from Peoria, Ill. She is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, where she played on the tennis team. She won her first tennis tournament at age 9.

It turns out that we were a good match -- she is a tennis player who would like to become a journalist, and I am a journalist who would like to become a tennis player.

On the court was another story, however. She had no trouble winning both sets, 6-0, 6-0. I managed to score a few points, and she was very considerate in not hitting me with one of her 90-mph serves.

We chatted afterward and she greeted several young women she has played against in previous tournaments. It seems tournament play at this level is a small world -- players get to know each other and follow each other's performance.

I joined Jankovich to watch the completion of Mikovic's, match, which was not going well for her. She lost and left the court with a long face. But Jankovich said that Mikovic benefited from just being in the competition and playing against unfamiliar opponents. We agreed that at 14, she has so many opportunities ahead of her.

Only 16 young women qualified to play today. That number will be down to four for tomorrow's main draw competition.

For me, this was a unique opportunity to see the struggles that eventually produce tennis stars, and to experience firsthand how fast a great serve can be.

Do I wish I had been part of that competitive scene 20 or 30 years ago? Probably not, but thinking about it is fun.

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