A swing at tennis stardom

July 18, 2004|By David Kohn | David Kohn,SUN STAFF

There were no stands, no announcers, no television cameras and no entourages. There were few spectators and very little money at stake.

But there were some very good tennis players.

Yesterday at the Druid Hill Park Tennis Complex, a few dozen laid-back tennis enthusiasts watched the semifinals of the fourth annual Holabird Sports Women's Satellite Tournament. On courts normally used by hobbling hackers, talented unknowns smashed away at each other with startling grace and power.

The players, almost all of them in their teens and early 20s, came from all over the globe: England, Japan, Australia, and Belarus. Though highly skilled, none of them ranked higher than 249th in the world.

The event, sponsored by the United States Tennis Association, is a "10K," the lowest rung on the ladder. The total prize money is $10,000, with $1,600 going to the champion.

But money is not the main goal. The players are here to raise their rankings. By winning smaller tournaments, they can be invited to more prestigious competitions.

Such tournaments take place almost every weekend all over the country. To succeed, most players must play months or years of these low-level competitions.

It is not glamorous. Take Nicole Pitts, for instance. A tanned and freckled 17-year-old from Boca Raton, Fla., she is ranked 723rd in the world. Instead of going to college, Pitts is trying to succeed on the pro circuit. Though she has received a little help from product sponsors, she relies mostly on her grandparents to pay her traveling expenses.

"My goal is to be the No. 1 in the world and to win a grand slam," said Pitts, who doesn't lack for confidence. Her favorite players are Pete Sampras and Michael Chang, both retired; she has no female idols.

Why? "I always say, `Why look up to `em if you're gonna beat `em.'"

Still recovering from recent wrist surgery, Pitts lost in the second round of the singles competition. But her flight didn't leave until today, and with no extra money for sightseeing she came out to Druid Hill Park yesterday where she helped one of the singles semifinalists warm up. Then, during the match, Pitts walked to a vacant court where she practiced by herself in the midday heat, serving a cardboard box full of balls and then running a series of agility drills.

Just across the street from Pitts, about 20 spectators watched one of the semifinal matches. They sat in the shade on lawn chairs they brought from home. Many were regulars at the Druid Hill courts. "I play a lot, but I'm a hack," said Jim Dow. "I come out to see how it's supposed to be done."

A retired corrections officer, Dow, 62, lives a few blocks from the park and plays there several times a week. "This is the old-timers' courts," he said. "It's almost like our bar. We play some, and tell war stories some."

Others had come to see the next Maria Sharapova or Serena Williams.

"A lot of these players end up on the big-time circuit," said Leon Bowser, who plays nearly every day. A retired computer programmer, he has been playing at the park for over half a century. Although regionally ranked in the seniors division, Bowers, 69, has no illusions about his chances against any of these competitors.

"We wouldn't even win one game," he said ruefully.

At least some of the competitors will probably go on to play in top tournaments. As tour officials pointed out, recent Wimbledon champion Sharapova played on the circuit last year.

"The future of the game is here," said USTA tour supervisor Bunny Williams, who is helping run the Baltimore tournament.

The most Sharapova-esque player was a long-legged 20-year-old from Belarus named Natallia Dziamidzenka. Like many players, Dziamidzenka (pronounced di-MEE-denka) has no corporate sponsors.

"It's expensive to do this," said her manager, Dora Conway. "Do you fly, do you stay in a hotel, do you eat three big meals a day? It costs $50,000 a year to do what she's doing."

For now, Dziamidzenka is funded by Conway and a group of other private sponsors in Charlottesville, Va., where she now lives. But that's not the long-term plan. "When she gets a high ranking, the shoe companies and the racket companies will come to her," Conway said.

Dziamidzenka, who is ranked 380th, lost in yesterday's semifinals to Janet Bergman.

The 24-year-old Bergman was among the oldest women in the tournament. A former All-American at Wake Forest University, she is now an assistant tennis coach at the school and decided to take another shot at making it as a professional.

Bergman will play Tomoko Dokei of Japan in today's 1 p.m. championship.

Dziamidzenka will return to Charlottesville for a week off, then she's off to another tournament.

"It's somewhere in Missouri," she said with a shrug.

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