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While the success of players such as Denis Kudla and Mitchell Frank, both 16, holds much promise for American tennis, it might say more about the human potential for excellence

By Tom Shroder
Sunday, August 16, 2009

This is where it begins:

A daisy chain of children standing on the wide blue stage of an indoor tennis court contemplating a staggered line of orange cones. "Okay," Frank Salazar is saying, "I want you to run forward to the first cone, then backward to the second, then forward to the third, like this."

The man who a quarter-century ago was one of the best junior tennis players in the world takes small, quick steps up and back to demonstrate. A pixieish girl of no more than 5, almost lost beneath a mass of dark ringlets, is first in line. She flaps her arms like a sparrow and begins to twirl, spiraling dreamily toward the first cone. The boy behind her sprints in her wake, then ignores the cones entirely. The third child chooses to skip, instead of run. On it goes, a sweet, relentless exercise in creative misinterpretation of instructions. These children are here because their parents have responded to fliers advertising a "fun festival," which turns out to be the chance to win free tennis lessons from the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park. The tennis center is a 10-year-old nonprofit institution with the improbably ambitious mission of identifying talent in the very young, then turning them into world-class athletes. The cones are just the first of eight physical challenges that 150 kids have come here to attempt and, mostly, fail at dismally.

Until a tall, thin girl with a blond bob approaches the starting line. She overtakes the first cone with fleet, short steps, abruptly reverses direction in a series of balanced back steps toward the second, then, shifting forward again like a cornerback, sprints to the third.

The tennis center's head coach, Vesa Ponkka, is watching from the sidelines. "Frank, check this out," he tells Salazar. "We've got something here. See how she pumps her knees high, her arms move in synch, her head stays still?"

None of this may seem significant to the uninitiated, but Ponkka has seen this before, and he knows where it may lead.

Here:

A bright, breezy spring day in Paris on the red clay of Roland Garros.

It is late in the first week of the French Open tournament, one of four Grand Slams of tennis, which attracts some of the most beautiful people in the world and all the best players. Court 13 is just across a small lane from the looming Suzanne Lenglen stadium, where periodic roars from the packed crowd announce a match in progress. There are no seats on 13, but, nonetheless, fans are lining up 10-deep outside the fence. Three sets of television crews, stationed above a high wall in the far corner, aim their lenses at the empty rectangle of red clay. Venus and Serena Williams are practicing on the adjoining court, but few even notice the famous American tennis players; word has spread that Rafael Nadal, the charismatic No. 1 tennis player in the world, is scheduled to warm up for that evening's fourth-round match. A boisterous crowd, in which young women are amply represented, awaits the entrance of the famously buff, 6-foot-1, 192-pound Spaniard. And now the gate opens, and in walks... Denis Kudla, a slight 5-foot-10, 150-pound teenager from Arlington, blond mop of hair spilling out from his white ball cap. Nadal's own brown mop enters a few steps behind. Denis is one of the best 16-year-old tennis players in the world. He's here to compete in the junior half of the open, but right now he will be Nadal's hitting partner.

Denis caught Ponkka's eye eight years ago at the College Park tennis center. What Ponkka saw in Denis was no more dramatic than what he saw in the young girl who followed directions for racing through plastic cones.

"He walked on the court like he knew where he was going," is how Ponkka tries to explain it.

By the time they were 14, Denis and Junior Ore, another tennis center pupil discovered the same year as Denis at one of the fun festivals, topped the rankings for 14-year-old tennis players in the United States. Last December, Denis won the 16-year-old division of the celebrated junior international tournament the Dunlop Orange Bowl on Key Biscayne. Facing him in the final was yet another tennis center prodigy, a 16-year-old named Mitchell Frank from Annandale.

An American boy hadn't won the Orange Bowl in five years. And now the two finalists were not only both Americans, but also lived within a few miles of each other in Northern Virginia -- hardly one of those sun-drenched places known for producing tennis stars -- and both trained in the same relatively unknown tennis program in suburban Maryland. It was no coincidence.

***

Much has been said about America's recent failure to produce male tennis champions. For years, the likes of Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Jim Courier dominated the men's game. But from the time Andy Roddick won his only Grand Slam at the U.S. Open in 2003 through his near-miss at Wimbledon last month, American men are 0-23 in Grand Slam tournaments. Of the top 100 players in the current rankings, there are more Frenchmen than Americans. Some attribute this to American softness and lack of will. Others say it's merely a reflection of the rise of the global economy, and a more open and even-footed world. Still more argue that America's best athletes simply choose other sports.

But Ponkka, Salazar and the other coaches at the Junior Tennis Champions Center believe what has been lacking is a model for the patient, thorough and systematic development of native talent from an early age. Drawing on training methods used in the former Soviet bloc, their own experience as players and coaches, and trial and error, they believe they've developed that model in College Park, and that their results prove it works.

In the past five years, 11 boys and girls training at the tennis center have either won national championship tournaments or been ranked No. 1 in the nation in their age groups. The Junior Tennis Champions Center has had 51 graduates: 41 have attended Division 1 universities -- 38 of them on scholarships. Seven have attended Division III and Ivy league schools, and three have turned pro.

With rare exceptions, these are not gems discovered elsewhere, then imported for polishing, as is the rule at places such as Nick Bollettieri's famed tennis academy in Florida. Instead, the tennis center has identified local kids with above-average potential, then transformed them from "above average" into some of the nation's and the world's most elite junior athletes.

In the end, what's been happening in College Park may be less interesting because of what it says about the hopes for American tennis than because of what it suggests about how people become exceptional. Even as the program at the tennis center was starting to obtain its remarkable results, a raft of new research seemed to offer an explanation. Recent books such as "The Talent Code" by Daniel Coyle and "Talent Is Overrated" by Geoff Colvin have summarized discoveries in neuroscience that have shown how sophisticated abilities arise through the development of neural pathways built and refined over time through constant repetition. In other words, practice makes perfect.

The thrust of the new research is this: Geniuses aren't born; they are created. This is true not only for tennis but also for any complex activity, such as playing an instrument or learning languages. Regardless of the activity, this theory goes, if you take children who can focus obsessively and follow direction, add expert instruction and thousands of hours of drills -- then, abracadabra: You've got talent.

This is precisely the program that the tennis center seems to have anticipated by a decade, a program that has proved so successful that the U.S. Tennis Association has used it as a model for its plan to create eight regional tennis centers around the country. It has also become a proving ground for a revolutionary idea: Almost anyone with some basic ability who is willing to put in the effort and the hours can become exceptional.

***

The tennis center was founded in 1999, not by a former tennis star, but by a banker: Ken Brody. The tall, lanky son of a New York milk truck driver was a late bloomer himself, an indifferent student until he began to excel in college and ended up at Harvard Business School, then rose to the management committee at Goldman Sachs. Bill Clinton brought Brody on as a major fundraiser for his 1992 presidential campaign, and upon being elected, appointed Brody to head the Export-Import Bank.

After Brody's term ended, he looked around for a philanthropic project.

"I'd done very well," he said, sitting in the high-ceilinged living room of his mansion in Northwest, the oldest house in Washington, built in Massachusetts in the 18th century and shipped here piece by piece in the mid-19th. His Aston Martin was parked outside. "It was time to give back," Brody, 65, said. Given his personal history, he wanted to do something involving kids and education, but he decided that area was already well covered.

"So I turned to tennis."

Brody had developed a passion for the game late in life. He only began to play regularly at age 44, after the birth of his son. "I was fat and out of shape, and I thought that was no way to be a good father."

What started out as an exercise program became an obsession. He played five or six times a week and developed an appreciation for the positive impact of the game on his life off the court. In tennis, he says, to succeed you "have to be so mentally strong and have such a will to perform."

So this was Brody's inspiration: Find kids early, especially poor kids, and teach them to excel, through tennis, but also through the discipline tennis requires. Brody created a nonprofit organization and started writing checks. Eventually he made a deal for 11 acres in College Park, where he built 27 courts, including two with French Open red clay.

More than 100 kids take part in various tennis programs there, from classes for beginners to training for tournament players. The 58 kids in the high-performance "champions" program are the ones bound for, at least, college tennis scholarships. Of those, 18 spend all day at the center, including 31/2 hours a day studying an online curriculum assisted by two on-site teachers. Ten of those students receive at least 50 percent financial aid. The tuition in the full-time program is $30,000 a year, but the tennis center gives $560,000 a year in need-based scholarships. A for-profit tennis club with about 300 members leases the courts and helps defer costs, but the club still operates at a slight loss. The rest of the program is funded by donations, sponsorships, contributions from the USTA and tuition from paying students.

In 2003, after some years of casting around for the right director, Brody hired Martin Blackman, then the men's tennis coach at American University. Blackman had grown up playing at Bollettieri's with Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and David Wheaton. In the locker room at the tennis center, there's a poster-size photograph of the four boys, Blackman beaming beside a mullet-maned Agassi. Bollettieri wrongly believed Blackman would be the biggest star of them all. Both Courier and Agassi became No. 1 in the world; Blackman never ranked higher than 158. But he excelled as a coach. Last fall, in a backhanded compliment to the tennis center's success, Blackman was hired away by the USTA. Though the tennis association's plan is to create programs similar to College Park's, Patrick McEnroe, Blackman's new boss, acknowledges it will be difficult to duplicate exactly. "Other programs have to worry about making money," McEnroe said. "College Park is in an ideal situation because Brody put so much of his own money into it."

When Blackman left College Park, Brody decided it was time to get serious about persuading other people to put money into his program. He hired one of the game's most successful promoters and managers, Ray Benton -- the man who with Jimmy Connors had created the Champions Tour, a tour for aging tennis greats -- in part for his fundraising abilities. Ponkka became director of tennis, and Salazar became the lead coach for the most-talented kids.

Through the changes, Brody's founding idea of making the program more about human development than stroke development persists. "You can take a kid from basically nothing and maximize them tennis-wise and have such an impact in their life psychologically," Salazar says. "What tennis teaches you, it teaches you so much about discipline. It teaches you how to deal with adversity... When you play tennis, you're not always going to win every time. You may step on the court and play great; you may step on the court and play not so great. The only thing that really you have control over when you step on the court is your mind, how you deal with the pressure, how you deal with the moment -- you have control over that."

That outlines an idea echoed frequently at the tennis center: The skills that enable a kid to play high-level tennis might just also create a high-level human being. When the coaches are asked if a lopsided regimen of so much tennis training couldn't create a miserable child instead, they say that's highly unlikely. A child who didn't love the game, even love the process of training, would never be able to make it far enough to get into the champions program. In the 10-year history, they say, they've had very few dropouts.

But even the motivated child needs lots of support. The program provides a fitness coach, an orthopedist who counsels kids on how to prevent injuries, and a sports psychologist. Each student has a coach assigned as a mentor, charged with helping the children to balance tournament and training schedules with academics and to navigate difficulties off the court.

Inevitably, as kids grow up inside the tennis bubble, the relationships become familial. Some top students spend more time with their coaches than with their parents, and some parents end up at the center nearly as much as their children are. One father even works there.

A refugee from the chaos in Sierra Leone, Constant Zubairu helped to build the tennis center as a construction worker, then stayed on as maintenance supervisor. Despite the steady job, money has been tight, so Constant lives with his brother, and when he works late, often sleeps in a room above the tennis courts. His twin sons, Francis and Franklin Tiafoe, sometimes stay with him there. Before club members gave Constant an air mattress, the boys slept head to toe on massage tables in the training room.

"I'd come in and wake them in the morning," recalls Misha Kouznetsov, Francis's coach, "and he'd just walk right out and start playing tennis."

Franklin, who didn't enjoy serious competition, migrated to a recreational program. But Francis excelled. "His whole life is tennis," Misha says. "You can't be his friend if you don't want to talk about tennis. If he falls behind at school, we punish him by telling he can't play until he catches up."

Francis's obsession is showing dividends. He won a top-level regional tournament in June, slicing through eight sets in the first four rounds, winning 48 games and losing only one. Now 11, Francis is already among the top 30 12-and-unders in the country. Another 11-year-old, Ndindi Ndunda of Burke, has been as high as eighth in the national rankings for 12-year-old girls. Physically, her coaches say, she is one of the most naturally gifted kids in the program. But she may be even more remarkable for her drive. "I want to be a pro tennis player," she told a local TV reporter. "So when I come here, I come with a point of view, what I want to get done today . . . It's just hard work and focus."

What's she going to sound like at 16?

"She is going to be very good," Ponkka says. "Very good may mean U.S. Open champion or NCAA champion."

The official program definition of tennis success is a college athletic scholarship, not a professional career. Even for these kids, success as a pro is just too unlikely. At any given time, only a couple hundred of the nearly 7 billion people on the planet are really making it financially on the pro tour. Even so, there are some kids at the tennis center, kids such as Denis, Mitchell and Junior Ore -- who everyone agrees are on the "pro track." They have already become exceptional, but pro tennis is littered with the carcasses of the exceptional. The question is: What will set them apart from those already set apart?

***

Neither Denis Kudla nor Mitchell Frank had ever been to Paris before. But this felt familiar: trudging along the sidewalk, with tennis bags the size of small children.

The two 16-year-olds had been in Europe for a couple of weeks already to play a warm-up tournament in Charleroi, Belgium, a grim industrial town that had not impressed them. When they weren't playing, they sat in the hotel. Mitchell needed to spend time studying, since he was missing almost a month of school -- being possibly the only junior tennis player in the world's top 100 who attends an actual high school. As a result, he normally practices only three hours a day, as opposed to Denis, who spends nearly twice that long on the courts at College Park. At least, when he's home.

Denis has been on the road at tournaments more than 30 weeks in the past year. That will likely increase in the future. "The two most important attributes for a pro player," Ponkka says, "is one, they have to tolerate travel, and two, they have to tolerate losing."

When Denis is in Arlington, his regimen is still unforgiving. He wakes up around 6 a.m., showers while his mom makes him breakfast and a sack lunch, throws on his tennis clothes, packs his bag and, still before 7, walks to the Metro station, where he catches the first of two trains that take him to the College Park stop, six blocks from the tennis center.

He spends two hours upstairs in the "school," basically the facility's attic, pursuing an online high school degree. He hits for two hours before lunch, followed by another hour and a half in the classroom. Then it's three more hours of tennis and fitness training.

Denis has been coming to the center since he was 8, full time since he was 12. It's been a sacrifice. He has missed some of the usual joys and challenges of adolescence. But Denis says it's worth it. "Because I get to play tennis twice as much as everyone else does, I get more chances to improve than other people."

Even though Mitchell spends the morning in regular classes at Annandale High School -- where he maintains straight A's -- he knows his life is hardly normal. "It almost kind of makes you like a different kid; you can't really be normal," he says. "It's more of a mature lifestyle than I think most teenagers go through where it's more relaxed, you know. Instead of hanging at the movies, I'm on the practice court or doing fitness or just every little thing I need to improve. Because if you aren't, then somebody else is, somewhere in the world."

After morning classes, Mitchell takes the Metro to the tennis center and works out with Denis and the other "high performance" kids until 5 p.m. He and Denis sometimes take the Metro home together, their tennis bags bumping the briefcases of commuters.

So on the eve of the French Open, as they descended into the yawning mouth of the Porte de Versailles Metro station on the southern perimeter of Paris, it all felt a little like business as usual. The train gathered speed, and one of the most beautiful cities in the world passed by overhead. But it might as well have been the surface of another planet.

"I'm not here to see these great, great buildings or whatever," Mitchell said. "If you see stuff, it's a bonus, but I treat it more as a business job than I do for fun."

This might be even truer for Denis, who signed a pro contract with an agent in January and later an endorsement contract with Lacoste apparel. Now he is committed: Once you sign as a pro, you can never get a college tennis scholarship. His parents, who would have to pay college tuition themselves if Denis's dream dies, believe in his chances and backed his decision. Denis sees it all as additional motivation.

"I have to go 100 percent every day, or I won't make it," he said. "This is the time where I have to take the pain, so later on I can enjoy my life. I've got to play tennis at a higher level and then after, hopefully make a lot of money, and then I can enjoy my life after that."

Denis, who has played in a number of minor league pro tennis tournaments and once got to a semifinal, already has a pro ranking hovering somewhere over 1,000th in the world. To put that in perspective, making a decent living as a pro usually requires being in the top 100 or so.

And to become rich?

Richard Gasquet, the 23-year-old pro who began the summer ranked 20th in the world, has won more than $4 million in prize money through his five-year career. Not incidental to Denis and Mitchell, in 2002, at 16, Gasquet won the junior French Open and went on to finish the year as the top junior player in the world.

So what Denis has achieved already, reaching ninth in the international juniors division, certainly has earned him the right to dream.

Mitchell, too. Mitchell, who started to play seriously at 11, came late to tennis training. "Normally, we would like to get them around 7 and 8," says Ponkka.

But Mitchell didn't begin at College Park until he was 14. Tennis center coaches say it takes at 10 to 15 years to learn how to compete at the pro level. That's unforgiving math: A 14-year-old might not be ready until he was 29, very near the end of most tennis careers.

Mitchell's coaches think he might be a rare exception. From an early age, Mitchell, whose grandfathers were both local tennis champions, showed an unusual ability to think strategically and anticipate. As an 8-year-old quarterback, Mitchell threw a touchdown pass deep in the end zone as time ran out, his father, Richard, remembers. In the tumult that followed, Richard congratulated his son. "That was great you were able to pick out Nolan in that crowd," he said. "I didn't see Nolan," Mitchell responded. "I saw the two defenders, but Nolan always runs the right route, so I knew he'd be there."

Vinh Do, a Fairfax Racquet Club teaching pro, more or less discovered Mitchell when the 11-year-old showed up in a local tournament and ran one of Vinh's top students so ragged that paramedics had to be called. "He's the only one I've ever coached who learned faster than I could teach," Vinh says.

Inevitably, Mitchell reached a point where Vinh felt he had outgrown "my experience and background." He urged Mitchell to start training at College Park. Since then, Mitchell's rapid improvement and remarkable ability to learn have impressed everyone. In recent months, he's beaten both Junior and Denis in tournaments, and his international ranking has soared, moving him past Junior into the top 50 in the world. His strokes may not yet be as perfect as many of his competitors, but Mitchell is known for his tenacity and ability to adjust. "If you're going to beat me," Mitchell says, "you better do it the first time you play me."

In one breakthrough tournament in Brazil this spring, he'd lost 6-1 in the first set and was down 5-1 in the second, one point from losing to the 39th best junior in the world, when he came back to win, fighting off eight match points in front of screaming fans. In the beginning of the tournament, the other players were asking, "Who's he?" By the end, they were calling him "the legend."

But if there's one thing both Mitchell and Denis have had drilled into them from their first day at the tennis center, it's this: Winning as a junior isn't the point. All that matters is getting better. Hard work, repetition, physical fitness, mental toughness and the ability to gain as much -- or more -- from losing as from winning, is their only hope.

In Belgium, Denis got an opportunity to practice that philosophy. He lost in the first round in two tiebreakers. "His opponent was serving great, and you tend to lose in tiebreaks when that happens," was coach Salazar's analysis. The USTA had asked Salazar to watch over Evan King, an American boy who trained in Florida. So when King made it into the semifinals in Belgium, Frank stayed behind while Vinh, Mitchell and Denis went ahead to their hotel in Paris -- two trains and two Metros away. They were tired from hours of travel, but as soon as they checked in, they set off to find a place to practice.

This was the French Open, not College Park, so that wasn't as easy as stepping off the Metro and walking a few blocks. In fact, even stepping off the Metro wasn't easy. When they arrived at their stop, a quarter-mile tromp from Roland Garros, Denis realized at the last possible second that the doors didn't open automatically; he had to flip the chrome handles. The boys barely managed to pull their bags through before the train pulled away.

The bigger problem was getting practice time on the Roland Garros grounds. As juniors, they didn't have much pull. But they did have Jay Berger, a former pro who now worked for the USTA and was in Paris as a kind of fixer for the American men in the tournament. Berger apparently pulled some levers, et voila, here they found themselves on the startling red clay on Court 10, looking up at the impressive arc of the 10,000- seat Suzanne Lenglen stadium.

The boys began to warm up, a ritual as familiar to them as breathing. But Mitchell looked a little queasy. When someone pointed at the stadium and said, "Would you look at that?" Mitchell said, "I'm trying not to."

After a few minutes, they started hitting harder, and the rallies took on a profile distinct from what you'll see at a typical tennis club. The most obvious difference was the speed -- of the ball, of course, which consistently moved at close to 100 miles per hour -- but also the racquets, which the boys didn't so much swing as fling across their bodies. The impact, mostly lost on television, is explosive. All that force can impart not only velocity but astonishing spin. Unless an opponent's stroke is equally swift and precise, the violently turning ball, rotating up to several thousand times a minute, will not just hit the racquet's strings, but crawl up its face like a living thing. And unlike recreational players, who hit the ball, then more or less stand still, the boys' feet never stopped moving. High-level tennis players have trained their bodies into gyroscopes, whirring in a constant motion that preserves balance, no matter what extremes they drive themselves to.

But footwork alone can't explain how the boys always seem to be at exactly the right spot at the right time. This requires a measure of clairvoyance, the ability to "sense" what your opponent is going to do with the ball the moment it touches the strings of his racquet, or even before, based on an intuitive grasp of his playing style and hints from his smallest movements. All without thinking. There is not enough time to think. A tennis player's mind must be crammed with knowledge, but to make that knowledge effective, thinking must cease.

It takes even the most gifted players thousands of hours on the court before they can hone these abilities and even longer to be able to sustain the physical and mental effort over the two hours of a typical match.

So when Denis and Mitchell speak of what they are working on, it is often about something less tangible than technique or strategy.

"Intensity is a big thing for me right now," Denis had said before he left for Europe. "I'm thinking about working harder, because sometimes I have a tendency to get a little angry, and then practice will go down, concentration will go down, and then I'm trying to work on keeping my level up, always, and not letting anything really distract me, just always focus on making the ball, hitting a good ball every time."

Denis may have been thinking about that as he practiced, but he was also just trying to get used to the way the ball came off the court surface, and the ball itself, which was said to be slightly heavier than the balls back in the States. Mainly, though, he was just trying to inure himself to the surroundings. Here he was, putting his footprints in the clay at the French Open.

In the background, the PA system boomed to life. In French, a voice said, "Game, set and match, Rafael Nadal. Nadal has defeated Lleyton Hewitt, 6-1, 6-3, 6-1." Nadal, now three rounds into his fifth French Open, had never lost a match here. At Roland Garros, he was a nearly impossible 31-0.

In the distance, you could hear the roar.

***

For kids such as Mitchell and Denis, the existence of players like Nadal is problematic. Both boys can see themselves crashing into the tennis stratosphere, becoming one of the top 10 pros in the world. This, despite the fact that, although they are fleet of foot, their speed is nothing special when compared with that of other high-level athletes. Nor are they as big or as strong as many of their competitors. At a slim 6 feet, Mitchell is barely heavier than Denis. Their hopes for the future rely on the validity of those recent theories about exceptional ability: Even if Denis and Mitchell aren't the biggest, fastest or strongest, maybe they can work longer and harder, train smarter, focus more intensely and become mentally stronger than anyone else.

As Denis put it: "What makes me really good is, I feel like I really want it, so I'm always working. I mean, some kids are really good, but they don't always want it; and kids who want it, sometimes they aren't that great."

This is where Nadal puts a serious kink in the logic chain: Here's an athlete who's physically extraordinary -- measurably unique. John Yandell, a researcher for a tennis Web site, used high-speed video cameras to study the forehand smashes of tennis greats. Nadal's ball spun at 3,200 rpm, 30 percent faster than Roger Federer's and almost twice as fast as Andre Agassi's in his prime, both legendary big hitters. But what most awes Nadal's competitors is not his outrageous forehand or his Conan the Barbarian musculature, but his mental intensity, unyielding work ethic and emotional courage.

It's a wide world, and almost inevitably there will be young Nadals out there, guys who are quicker and stronger, have psyches as hard as diamond, and put forth 110 percent effort day after day.

And even if Denis and Mitchell put aside the possibility of an unconquerable foe, all they have to do to understand the calamities that could befall them is to look at their coaches. Salazar, literally atop the world at 14, and in the top 10 at 18, began to experience shoulder pain and numbness in his fingers. It turned out he had a rare nerve condition that plagued him through his college career at Clemson and doomed his three-year attempt at the pro circuit.

Ponkka, a top junior in Finland, invested 20 years in his effort to make it as a pro and has spent another 20 dissecting the reasons he failed. Just recently, he's come to the conclusion that he got everything he could from his game. "The fact is," he says, "I don't think I was good enough."

The boys understand that their coaches demonstrate how dreams can die, but far from creating doubt about their own prospects, they only inspire hope.

"My coaches believe in me, so I believe in myself," Denis says. "I trust them. They know what they are talking about."

On Saturday at the French Open, that faith was tested when Salazar gave Denis two bits of news. One, he wouldn't be playing his first round match until Monday, and two, Jay Berger had arranged a Sunday practice session for Denis: At noon, he would hit with Rafael Nadal.

Tennis can be tough on self-confidence. Every shot you miss puts your inadequacies on display and advertises your opponent's superiority. And no one is more superior than Nadal.

Plus Denis knew, or intuited, the truth of what USTA coach Jose Higueras had to say about Nadal in a recent New York Times profile: "When you see him practice, it's pretty spectacular. Every ball he hits with the same intensity and power. Every day, it's like it's going to be the last practice of his life."

Denis, who admits to having been "a little nervous," must actually have been wondering if it would be the last practice of his life. Or his tennis life, anyway. What would happen if, after 10 minutes of shooting holes through Denis, Nadal demanded a better hitting partner?

And since word of the practice session had somehow leaked, there was now a 10-deep crowd at the fence, children and girlfriends hoisted up on shoulders snapping digital cameras, television crews aiming long lenses from the overpass, a huge mass of people waiting at the back gate in hopes of catching a glimpse of the Goliath as he came off the court. The entire world, it seemed, would witness Denis's humiliation.

But as soon as Nadal began pounding the ball across the net, Denis realized that even though it sprang off Nadal's racquet, it was still a ball, just like all the balls he'd been chasing for half his life. So he did what he always did: He hit it back.

And, yes, Nadal was intense. He drove his powerful frame from line to line, all his movements, every ounce of weight and strength, coming together in perfection at the point of impact, imparting the maximum force allowed by physics. And, kapow! Denis returned the favor. They locked into a rocking duet, a ballet consisting of slices that bit into the clay and barely relinquished it, topspins that leapt off the surface like spooked stallions.

The tennis champion and the 16-year-old didn't exchange a word. But their dialogue on the court was eloquent, intimate. An hour and a half later, the hundreds crushing in for a look remained, riveted, and not one could have believed Denis Kudla did not belong there.

***

The night before the first Grand Slam match of Mitchell's young career, he and Vinh walked a half-mile from the hotel to eat pasta and watch the sun set over the city, in the general direction of Roland Garros. "You better get bottled water," Vinh counseled when the waiter poured tap water from a carafe. "Why take a chance?"

As he sipped his Perrier, Mitchell and his coach talked about the city, their hotel and the pro matches of the day, but not a word about strategy. On the eve of a big match, Mitchell tries not to think about what he is going to do on the court, "I try to just be there, calm with myself and just be present in the moment," he said. It wasn't a bad moment to be present in: a laid-back sidewalk cafe on a perfect spring evening in Paris. But as the two lingered, Mitchell began to think about Junior, who was not only his practice partner but often his doubles partner, as well. He wished that Junior could have been in Paris with them. It is an odd thing about tennis: He and Junior were teammates, but also competitors. Mitchell's success could be seen as coming in part at Junior's expense, and Mitchell knew that it had been hard for Junior to watch Mitchell's rise while Junior, who'd suffered a string of losses, plummeted in the rankings. As Mitchell and Denis set off for Paris, Junior was boarding a plane for lesser tournaments in Morocco.

"I think it kind of hit him," Denis said. "It's hard to do well in your first few Grand Slam tournaments. It takes a lot of Grand Slams to get used to the pressure and not be overwhelmed. Because I'm here at the French and have all next year to still play in the juniors, I have potentially seven Grand Slams to look forward to. But it looks like Junior is going to get shut out of them this year, which gives him only four next year. So he might feel like he's running out of time."

Maybe, but a few weeks earlier in College Park, before the boys would climb on separate jets to separate continents, Junior was practicing what his coaches preached: trying to treat defeat no differently than triumph -- both opportunities to learn. "If I have a bad stretch," Junior said, "I always think, 'Wow, what happened?' But then I always, like, talk to the coach, and I always talk to my girlfriend and then, like, my family, and they're always supporting me. So the next day, I train. There's always another tournament; it's not like that's the last. There's always another tournament the next week, so I just try to get better. That's how I do it."

That strategy seemed to work. Junior would go on to spend most of June in Africa. In four tournaments there, he would win one, finish second in two and make the semifinal round in the fourth, pushing his ranking from the mid-90s to 51. So when the last junior Grand Slam of the year, the U.S. Open in New York, came around in September, Junior would still have a chance to play there.

***

While Denis hit with Nadal, Mitchell waited for his big moment on Court 2. Because two other matches were scheduled before his, Mitchell would have to endure the limbo that was a familiar hazard of tournament life. He holed up in the players' lounge beneath Suzanne Lenglen stadium, a somewhat claustrophobic space cluttered with tennis bags arrayed like speed bumps around the room. It had a snack bar and some video games pushed up against the wall, but mostly Mitchell and the other kids just sat, ear buds plugged in, wired to their iPods.

His opponent was Filip Horansky, a Slovakian boy a week shy of 16, yet already ranked above Mitchell at 23. Horansky had played his whole life on clay courts, and not surprisingly it was his favorite surface.

When Mitchell got the call, he hoisted his bag and walked up the ramp toward Court 2, passing by the huge electronic scoreboard where his name was written in light, just like those of the greats of the game.

He played like one early in the first set, quickly going up five games to one. But then he began to feel the moment. He failed in two chances to serve for the set. The second time, on set point, Mitchell hit a perfect drop shot. But Horansky raced forward, sliding the last few feet to somehow get his racquet under the ball, which sliced away from Mitchell's outstretched racquet.

Horansky went on to win that game and three more, erasing Mitchell's lead. The set went into a tiebreaker. Mitchell fell behind 5-1, just two points from a stunning turnaround loss. But Horansky made one nervous error, and Mitchell pounced, winning the next five points to take the first set.

Fans, realizing that something exciting was happening on this back court, filled the stands. The wind began to blow clouds across the sun. In the shadow, the breeze turned chilly.

The play stayed hot, though. Each point was a battle, but Horansky dug in and won the second set 6-4. Now it was one set apiece.

In the third set, Mitchell hustled his way to a 5-3 lead. But at a crucial moment as he served for the match, his strings broke in the middle of a rally, costing him the point and, eventually, the game.

The clouds turned darker. A freshening wind brought with it roars from the stadium, where Rafael Nadal, just hours after hitting with Denis, was trying to win his 32nd straight French Open match.

Mitchell won the first two points of Horansky's serve, putting him just two points from victory. But Horansky fought him off. Mitchell held his serve, too. Once again, he got out to a lead on his opponent's serve. Then, incredibly, his strings broke a second time in the middle of a crucial point. Mitchell slapped at the ball, making four shots with his broken racquet before finally missing.

The roars from the Nadal match were louder and nearly constant now. As the boys battled, something very big was happening less than 100 yards away.

Now it was Horansky's turn to attempt to serve for victory. On the second point, Mitchell's ball hit the top of the net, hung indecisively, then dropped on the other side. It was the last point Mitchell would win.

When the final shot skidded past him, Mitchell dropped his hands to his knees and stared down into the red, red clay.

Fifty minutes after Mitchell Frank suffered his first-ever loss at the French Open, so did Rafael Nadal.

***

That night, Mitchell took the Metro into the lively Latin Quarter, where acrobats and jugglers performed in cobblestone squares. He was upbeat, already talking about returning to the French Open next year. After dinner, he did something unusual for him. He went sightseeing. He walked across the bridge to the Ile de la Cite to stare up at the Gothic spires of Notre Dame, then crossed another bridge to the geographic center of Paris, the enormous square in front of the Paris City Hall.

In the middle of the square, some barricades had been erected. Mitchell drew closer. He did a double take when he realized what the barricades hid: a tennis court of red clay, an exact replica of the ones at Roland Garros. Nothing in the world should have been more familiar to him, and yet, out of context, here in the heart of Paris, surrounded by the tourists gaping at the glorious and ancient buildings, by the businessmen and bureaucrats meeting in bars and bistros, by the history and the sense of endless possibilities that the city exudes, the tennis court seemed somewhat odd in a way he couldn't immediately define.

He just stood, staring at it. "It looks so small," he said.

***

Guilherme Clezar was no Rafael Nadal, but for Denis, the pressure of hitting with the world's best player in front of hundreds of fans had been no worse than this match. Clezar, a big Brazilian who must have outweighed him by 30 pounds, was the boy who beat Denis a week earlier in the Belgium. It only added to the pressure knowing he would be playing in front of his father, mother and brother, who had flown from Washington, as had Denis's new sports agent and Ken Brody, the tennis center founder, along with a business associate of Brody's who had just pledged to help fund Denis's travel expenses, which can run to the tens of thousands a year and otherwise would be borne monthly by his parents.

From the very first ball, Denis was knocked on his heels. His usual craft and resilience had deserted him. He rolled his eyes when he netted an easy volley. He shook his head, slumped his shoulders and shuffled his feet when he hit long.

At one point, Brody felt moved to lean across the aisle and say to Denis's corporate benefactor, "I've never seen him play like this."

Clezar won the first set 6-4, and it only got worse in the second: He didn't allow Denis a single game. Denis quickly walked off the court dragging that ever-present bag and vanished into the player's lounge. "I better go see what's up with him," Frank said. And to remind him: Doubles in three hours.

By late that afternoon when he took the court with his doubles partner, Evan King, Denis showed no sign of his defeat. He and King, who'd also lost his first-round singles match, were trading wisecracks and bumping fists as they went out ahead in the first set.

"He took two hours to feel bad about that loss, and then he was over it," said Vladimir Kudla, Denis's father, while he watched the match with his wife, Lucy, and Denis's 21-year-old brother, Nikita. "It's nothing to lose a match, but people lose sight of that," said Vladimir, who grew up in Ukraine during the Soviet era and came to the United States when Denis was a year old. "I lived through communism, built a business during a period of corruption, then came to America and had to start all over again. So, I know."

Denis had hard lessons to learn, in both tennis and life, Vladimir said. "Americans are whiners. These Eastern European kids know how hard the world is, and they would do anything to win. Nobody cares about excuses. They claw, they bite, they cheat if they need to because they know that's their only chance to make it."

He felt that Denis was developing the mental strength and skills he needed "in stages" but that he would get there. "He has another couple of years, and he could get to the top of the juniors, and then he has to start again in the pros, where they will tear you apart all over again."

As Vladimir talked, a woman in the next row began to yell out in Russian to one of Denis's opponents. Vladimir stopped and listened. "She's coaching him," he said. "That's against the rules."

He leaned across the aisle to chat amiably in Russian.

"I just wanted her to know I could understand what she was saying," he said.

The woman stopped coaching, and Denis and Evan went on to win.

The next morning at the hotel, over breakfast, Denis was able to reflect on his singles loss. "I got a little overwhelmed," he said. "I was having all kinds of thoughts in my head I shouldn't have had. Like expectations, trying to play like a pro."

Plus, he said, it always made him self-conscious to play in front of his family. Not that he meant that as an excuse.

"I guess," he said, "I just wasn't ready."

***

Two weeks after the French Open, Denis and Mitchell made the Metro slog again, only this time to the grass tennis court at the Australian ambassador's residence in Northwest Washington, a rarity in this country. Ray Benton had arranged for the boys to hit there for a few days before they left for England and the grass courts of Wimbledon.

Denis had hit only once on grass, and Mitchell never. So when Benton used the key he'd been given to unlock the gate to the court, the boys stepped up onto the grass and wandered around in amazement before they even thought of grabbing their tennis bags. The ground was soft, springy, like someone's well-manicured lawn. They hopped up and down on it, then bent town to press their hands against the yielding surface.

Soon, they had their racquets out to hit a few tentative strokes. The first balls dropped on the grass with a soft thud and skidded instead of bounced. They both laughed in amazement. Then they hit some more, trying out their slices and spins and serves on the novel surface. Everything so familiar seemed suddenly brand new. They pranced around the grass swinging and laughing, for once just boys playing.

***

Updates on the Players

Denis Kudla has played some impressive tennis in the weeks after the French Open. After losing a first-round heartbreaker in the Wimbledon Junior Championships, 6-3; 5-7; 6-8, to Hiroyasu Ehara of Japan, Denis took the French pro Sebastien de Chaunac to three sets in the Legg Mason Tennis Classic qualifier in Washington before losing 6-3; 4-6; 6-2. De Chaunac went on to win two rounds in the main draw, including a victory over Dmitry Tursunov, ranked in the top 50 players in the world.

Denis, of Arlington, also made it to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Tennis Association Boys National Championships in Kalamazoo, Mich.

Mitchell Frank, of Annandale, also lost a tight first-round match, 6-3; 4-6; 6-2, to Jozef Kovalik in the Wimbledon Junior Championships. He lost in straight sets in the first round of the Legg Mason qualifying tournament, but won through to the round of 16 at the USTA Boys National Championships in Kalamazoo.

Junior Ore, of Gaithersburg, also lost in the first round of the Legg Mason qualifier and in the second round at Kalamazoo, but his performance in the African tournaments won him a place in the main draw of the U.S. Open junior championships in New York next month.

Francis Tiafoe, of College Park, finished third in the boys 12-and-under USTA National Clay Court Championships, and has moved up to the 15th in the national rankings.

Ndindi Ndunda, of Burke, made it to the semifinal round of the USTA national 12-and-under girls championships and is now ranked 15th nationally.

Tom Shroder is the editor of the Magazine. He can be reached at shrodert@washpost.com.

***

UPDATE TO THIS STORY:

Denis Kudla has played some impressive tennis in the weeks after the French Open. After losing a first-round heartbreaker in the Wimbledon Junior Championships, 6-3; 5-7; 6-8, to Hiroyasu Ehara of Japan, Denis took the French pro Sebastien de Chaunac to three sets in the Legg Mason Tennis Classic qualifier in Washington before losing 6-3; 4-6; 6-2. De Chaunac went on to win two rounds in the main draw, including a victory over Dmitry Tursunov, ranked in the top 50 players in the world.

Denis, of Arlington, also made it to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Tennis Association Boys National Championships in Kalamazoo, Mich.

Mitchell Frank, of Annandale, also lost a tight first-round match, 6-3; 4-6; 6-2, to Jozef Kovalik in the Wimbledon Junior Championships. He lost in straight sets in the first round of the Legg Mason qualifying tournament, but won through to the round of 16 at the USTA Boys National Championships in Kalamazoo.

Junior Ore, of Gaithersburg, also lost in the first round of the Legg Mason qualifier and in the second round at Kalamazoo, but his performance in the African tournaments won him a place in the main draw of the U.S. Open junior championships in New York next month.

Francis Tiafoe, of College Park, finished third in the boys 12-and-under USTA National Clay Court Championships, and has moved up to the 15th in the national rankings.

Ndindi Ndunda, of Burke, made it to the semifinal round of the USTA national 12-and-under girls championships and is now ranked 15th nationally.

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