Tornado Alicia Black, 19, is giving tennis lessons in Delray Beach, Fla., to help make money so she can pay for hip surgery and resume her career. Credit Scott McIntyre for The New York Times
DELRAY BEACH, Fla. — Four years after she reached the junior singles final at the United States Open, Tornado Alicia Black, once the most promising young female player in the country, moved gingerly on a quiet tennis court behind a set of condominiums, coaching a 10-year-old girl.
While many of Black’s peers were preparing to play in this year’s Open, she was lobbing balls to the student and then cajoling her to pick them up.
“Move your shoulders,” Black said patiently. “Come on, you have to stay with it.”
But staying with it is becoming increasingly difficult for Black herself.
Three years ago, she was the third-ranked junior girl in the world and future stardom seemed as close as a short volley. It was a remarkable achievement for a player whose turbulent childhood included two periods of homelessness before she was a teenager.
But debilitating hip pain from two sports hernias — tears in the lower abdominal muscles — have derailed her career and left her probably the best player on the planet giving tennis lessons full time.
“If she were playing right now, she would have a really good ranking,” Nicole Frankel, Black’s friend and a fellow player, said. “It breaks my heart to see what she is going through.”
What’s more, the throbbing is getting worse. It hurts just to sit, Black said, never mind take an easy jog, and in recent weeks it became too painful to sleep on her left side.
An operation would solve the issue, but Black said she cannot afford to pay for it. The money she earns from giving tennis lessons is not enough because she is also helping to support her mother and sister, Hurricane Tyra Black, a 16-year-old ranked No. 55 in the juniors.
“I make the bare amount,” Black said last month between lessons. “It’s tough supporting my sister traveling. I’m trying to save money for the hip surgery, trying to help pay the rent. Sometimes it can get really overwhelming for me. I’m only 19.”
Black, who began playing tennis when she was 3, said she prefers to be called Alicia, her original name. Her mother, Gayal Black, has acknowledged that she named her daughters after storms as a marketing gimmick for their presumed stardom.
Her last competitive singles match was a first-round loss in the 2015 U.S. Open qualifying tournament, when the pain in her hip had become excruciating.
At the end of October that year, she had surgery to repair a torn hip labrum.
But in July 2016 her hip blew out again. An M.R.I. was sent to Dr. William C. Meyers, an expert in Philadelphia who diagnosed two sports hernias and recommended surgery.
Black says her insurance and Medicaid will not cover the procedure out of the state of Florida, or her portion of the payment would be costly; it is a delicate operation and she said it would be best done by Dr. Meyers, who has a reputation as one of a few doctors known to perform it on elite athletes.
“I’ve been putting so much pressure on myself to get back on the court, to save up for my surgery, to help out with my family, and sometimes it’s just too much,” she said. “I go out on the court with my students and I just have to fake a smile because sometimes I get so upset.”
The surgery alone would cost $16,000, Black said. But she estimated she would need at least $40,000 more so she can take the time to rehabilitate the hip without having to give lessons.
She said her mother has skin cancer and severe asthma and is unable to help financially. Black said her mother recommended raising the money through an internet crowdfunding campaign — something the family has done in the past to cover training and traveling expenses — but Alicia has rejected the idea, for now. She says she is embarrassed to ask for money, but as her situation deteriorates, has not ruled it out.
“What scares me most,” she said, “is if I’m damaging my hip more to a certain point that they can’t fix it.”
In the meantime, Black’s days are spent giving lessons, and on the weekends, watching her pupils play in tournaments. Once the lessons are over she drives to Boynton Beach, Fla., to pick up her sister after her training, and they return to their apartment in Deerfield Beach, where Alicia Black usually prepares dinner, then tries to sleep through the agonizing discomfort.
“My muscle is torn apart and it’s really painful,” she said. “It’s so tough because I want to get my surgery, but I can’t leave my family hanging. What kind of person would I be if I left them on the street?”
That is not completely far-fetched, for the street is where Black, her mother and her sister once lived. When she was about 8 years old, Black said, they spent a few months in a homeless shelter after her father left them.
Later, when Alicia was 12, she, her mother and her sister spent their nights in a car for about two more months, she said. She had been training a few days a week at the United States Tennis Association facility in Boca Raton at the time.
“We were living in the car,” she said. “So that’s actually how I got into the U.S.T.A. They had me stay in the dorms because I was sleeping in the car every day. I was going out to court too tired, worrying, mosquito bites, everything.”
When Black began working with former U.S.T.A. coach Federico Rodriguez as a 12-year-old, she blossomed. She had a bad attitude when she was younger, she admits, and there were outbursts at coaches and incidents like the time she smashed five rackets in a row.
But the U.S.T.A. coaches and officials knew she had been through a volatile home life, and they tried to be forgiving.
“She was already the best 12-year-old in the country,” Rodriguez said of when Black arrived in Boca Raton. “She has a rare combination of speed, power and court intelligence that makes her so dangerous. It’s just really sad that she isn’t playing now.”
Black says Rodriguez is like a father to her and the two bonded, both on the court and while traveling the globe for tournaments. Black could be explosive, but Rodriguez also saw a sweet girl inexperienced in many of the basic aspects of a child’s life.
On a trip to Uruguay in 2012, the U.S.T.A. had given Black a stipend for travel expenses and one night Rodriguez discovered she had been vomiting in her room. She had taken the money from her stipend and splurged on chocolate until it made her sick.
Prepared or not, Black turned professional at 13, she said, to help support her family. She has earned $47,348 in career prize money, but that is long gone, and so are the contracts with the athletic manufacturers Penn and Nike that gave her performance bonuses and also increased her incentive to play, perhaps too much.
Now she wants to protect her little sister from a similar fate.
“For me, it was just too much pressure when it came to money because, ‘Oh if I don’t win this match and make a certain amount of money, how are we going to pay the rent this month?’ So I really try not to bring my sister into any of it,” Black said.
But even her primary source of income, coaching, is in some doubt. In recent weeks her pain has become so severe that she has had to pass half of her older students to other coaches. There are other worries, too. Black has braces on her teeth, but they have not been attended to in 12 months, she said, because there is no money for an orthodontist.
With everything she has been through, Black tries hard to remain positive through her current limbo.
“Thankfully, at least for now, I have a roof overhead and some food to eat,” she said. “But then again, I’m not playing tennis, doing what I love, what I’m supposed to be doing.”
What she is not supposed to be doing is giving lessons at 19. But as she told her little pupil on court, she has to stay with it.
I know everyone on this forum used to drag her for being a pusher or whatever, so I was wondering if that was why she just failed to break through, but I had no idea this was going on. Her sister Hurricane lost in R1 of the juniors to Lansere.