Chase’s decision to enter the USTA’s academy ultimately came down to his coaches. He wanted to keep Al Matthews, his old coach from Ohio, and he worried that coaches at the private academies would try to reprogram him their way. And Dave DiLucia, his USTA coach, wasn’t a threat. “Al and I have a great working relationship with Chase,” DiLucia says. “When I’m with him, I call Al and tell him how he’s playing.” And vice versa.
Now “an academy kid,” Chase, 16, had to make adjustments. His interest, he says, was “girls,” but girlfriends on campus were against the academy’s rules. So many rules! No smoking of any substances, tobacco or otherwise; no drinking of alcoholic beverages; no romance (including hand-holding, smooching, or petting of any kind); no posters on walls; no cursing; no leaving the grounds; and on and on.
“It’s a little ridiculous,” Chase says.
Then he read the schedule. Breakfast, served at 6:30 A.M., was mandatory. Then it was back to his room to change into tennis clothes so he could be on the court by 7:45 to stretch, warm up, then play for two hours under the sun.
It gets hot here. So hot the heat index is measured every day by the academy’s physical therapist so she can attempt to prevent kids from passing out or needing emergency ice baths. Last month, when I visited the academy one morning, the heat index was calculated to be 106.7 degrees. “Eventually, your body begins to acclimate to it,” says Paul Roetert, the academy’s chief administrator.
Today, Roetert was walking around the courts and pointing to this phenom over here (“She came to us from California”) and that one over there (“He came to us from Brooklyn”). He talked about his biggest challenges (dealing with everyone’s parents) and the mission at hand.
“Of course there’s a lot of pressure,” he said. “We’re trying to find the next Andy Roddick. We’re trying to find the next James Blake.”
“We’re competing now with the whole rest of the world,” says Nick Bollettieri, who considers himself a partner of the USTA’s academy, “and the rest of the world are hungry mothers.”
He squinted out into the sun as the kids slid on clay and practiced second serves. With gobs of white sunscreen on their faces, the USTA coaches peered out at their teenage projects from underneath their caps and listened as each shot was grunted out. The grunts were loud at first and then trailed off into a hiss, like a bike tire being relieved of its air.
“Aayyyeeeeeee … eeeyee, eeyee.”
Jay Berger, one coach, was keeping tabs from behind a pair of wraparound shades.
“There’s tremendous benefit to what they’re doing,” Berger said of the grunting. “By exhaling, they control their breathing and get themselves ready for the next shot.”
He looked back at the court.
“Some of it, you know, may be exaggerated. That’s okay.”
Once, Berger was ranked seventh in the world. He’s now the academy’s most ruthless enforcer.
“No question, he’s definitely the toughest,” says Jeremy Efferding, an academy player who just turned 15. He remembers his first days training with Berger. He hit so many balls he began to feel sick. Really sick.
“I threw up,” he says. “All over the court.”
The coach was pissed, Efferding says. “He told me, ‘If you’re playing in a match and you throw up, you throw up on the court. If you’re in practice, you throw up on the side of the court.’ ”
This intense training is necessary for American kids. “In Europe or in Argentina, the kids have no other choice,” Berger says. “They commit early. They know they want to be pros. Here, American kids can use their tennis to be pros, or they can use their tennis to get into Harvard. There are too many choices.”
Bollettieri encourages rough, bare-knuckled play. “That’s how you become good,” he says. “You put 30 hungry bastards in the backcourt, no coaches, and let ’em fight!” Chase’s coach, Dave DiLucia, says the goal is to take all the nervous thinking out of the game. “What we’re trying to do is drill them so hard and so often that when the competition comes, they don’t know anything else,” DiLucia says. That’s why the coaches now supplement their students’ time in Fort Lauderdale with a stint in the actual Marines.
Camp Pendleton is a secure 125,000-acre compound that’s located on a stretch of hilly, coastal terrain in Southern California. It is one of the Department of Defense’s busiest bases, where tens of thousands of soldiers are trained to kill and protect. But the worlds of tennis and the Marines are “identical twins,” Keith Williams, their drill sergeant, told Chase and the other USTA boys when they arrived. “There’s a direct correlation for how tennis players must prepare for competition at the highest levels to what Marines have to do to prepare for combat.” In addition to being a drill sergeant, Williams is also a tennis junkie, and provided the services of the Marine color guard and flyover planes for pro tournaments in Southern California (the “hidden agenda,” he says, is getting to watch matches for free). When USTA coaches told Williams about the academy, he didn’t hesitate to offer up the official boot-camp routine. On day one, the boys were given dog tags and their orders. “We couldn’t talk to each other,” says Jarmere Jenkins, who, like Chase, is among the top 25 junior players in the world. They did push-ups and more push-ups. They learned how to make their beds. They assembled and reassembled M16 rifles and shot the guns in video simulators. They learned martial arts. They spoke in commands. Sir, yes sir! They were deprived of sleep.