Small venues nurture Devidze's big dreams

Republic of Georgia native advances to main draw as 3rd seed at Druid Hill Park


July 13, 2004|By Ryan Young | Ryan Young,SUN STAFF

In time, Salome Devidze hopes to be among the top 20 women's tennis players in the world, competing for big prize money on the sport's grandest stages.

In time.

This week, the 18-year-old is in Baltimore for the Holabird Sports 10K, a United States Tennis Association satellite tournament at Druid Hill Park, where the top prize is less than $2,000 and at times the cheering section yesterday consisted only of her mother.

It's a start. But considering the alternative, the setting is just fine with Devidze, the tournament's No. 3 seed, who has been playing tennis since she was 6. Without a chance encounter almost a decade ago, she wouldn't even be in Baltimore this week.

"She's lucky," Guliko Devidze said yesterday as she watched her daughter defeat Fallon Koon, 6-0, 6-0, in qualifying to advance to the tournament's main draw, which begins today.

When Devidze was 9, she was spotted at a tournament in Portugal by Henry Buhl, a man from New York with a passion for tennis and money Devidze and her mother could only imagine. Buhl was impressed while watching Devidze compete and inquired about her.

"They told him, `Yeah, she's good, but she doesn't have enough money to keep playing,' " Guliko Devidze recalled.

Devidze is from the republic of Georgia, a country formerly part of the Soviet Union mired in poverty.

"There's no money. It's terrible," Devidze would tell Buhl when asked about her home. "It's so hard. Basic things. People don't have electricity in their houses. It's really hard.

"If I was in Georgia, I wouldn't be playing tennis now," said Devidze, who is No. 280 in the WTA rankings because Buhl offered to sponsor her.

He helped the family move to Boca Raton, Fla., eight years ago, providing them with housing and a red Chevy Blazer that Devidze drives from tournament to tournament - always accompanied by Guliko, who jokes she is the only mother on the USTA Pro Circuit.

Theirs is a close relationship, though. Devidze's father remains in Georgia, where he is an engineer. She last went to Georgia to see him three years ago, and said he is happy there and not likely to come to the United States.

But with her mother always by her side, she is not alone. When the two arrived in the United States, Guliko didn't speak English and recalls having to bring Salome - who speaks fluent English in addition to four other languages - to the grocery store to translate. Now, Guliko returns the favor, sitting attentively next to the court, providing a cheering gallery of one as her daughter climbs the rankings and tours the country.

The $10,000 tournaments like this week's event at Druid Hill Park are the lowest rung on the USTA Pro Circuit - the minor leagues of tennis - where anybody can compete and earn points to qualify for larger events.

"The circuit is the birthplace of the future stars of the WTA," said Bunny Williams, a tournament supervisor who has been involved with the USTA since 1991.

Williams said nine of the players ranked in the latest WTA top 10 began their careers on the Pro Circuit, at events like this. Maria Sharapova, who won Wimbledon earlier this month, competed on the circuit last year.

Devidze hopes to be on a similar track. Her best finish to date was a final appearance at a $50,000 event in which she won $4,000. She has also competed in two WTA Tour events.

"If your dream is to be a professional tennis player," Williams said, "this is the place to get started."

Tournament data

What: USTA Women's Satellite Tournament of Baltimore

When: Today through Sunday

Time: Play begins at 10 a.m.

Where: Druid Hill Park Tennis Center

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