The Tennis Week Interview: Michelle Larcher de Brito
By Richard Pagliaro
Cracking crisp groundstrokes so strikingly clean they could be packaged as a designer line performance product, 14-year-old phenom Michelle Larcher de Brito made a dazzling debut in the Miami main draw last week in surprising Meghann Shaughnessy 3-6, 6-2, 7-6(3) to become the youngest player to win a WTA Tour main-draw match since the introduction of the age-eligibility rule in 1995.
A week later, Larcher do Brito is back home in Bradenton, Fla., creating the imaginative combinations of shots that make her such a maddening opponent for even veterans to face while a hairy, husky Armani follows in her footsteps off the court.
Armani is the name of Larcher de Brito's constant companion, her Siberian husky, and a reminder that though she can drive opponents to frustration on the court with her control she's not even old enough to earn her learner's permit in the state of Florida.
Fist-pumping with all the energetic enthusiasm of a teenager willing to take on Rafael Nadal in an arm-wrestling match, Larcher de Brito played with passion and poise in earning her first career main-draw victory. She fell to 30-year-old Kristina Brandi in the $75,000 Midland Challenger on Feb. 6, received a wild card into the Sony Ericsson Open and showed the ambitious shot-making, ball control skills and ability to take the ball early in dueling former World No. 11 Shaughnessy into a third-set tiebreak. Stepping up on the baseline to assert her strokes, Larcher de Brito won six straight points, pausing to fist pump on occasion, to start the tiebreak before closing out the momentous victory and dropping to her knees in genuine joy.
"I was just really excited. I was just really pumped through the match," said Larcher de Brito, who won the Girls' 16s title at the Eddie Herr Championship as a 12-years-old in 2005 to become the youngest player to achieve that feat. "I definitely wanted to win this one because it was my first really big tournament. I just got into it and the crowd did, too. I was just focused. It's something I've always done. The down part of it, well, I don't think there really is one."
A native of Lisbon, Portugal, Larcher de Brito has showcased an immense upside since she started playing tennis at age 3. Initially, she was a retriever, following her older twin brothers around the court to pick up balls, but quickly developed her own style. Larcher de Brito earned a scholarship to the IMG Bollettieri Academy at age 9 and moved to Bradenton with her brothers, father Antonio and mom Caroline.
She was the youngest top 100-ranked junior player in the world and grew up admiring another precocious player: five-time Grand Slam champion Martina Hingis, who became the youngest player to reach No. 1 in the world at the age of 16 years, 6 months and 1 day.
" I like the way she develops points and opens up the court so well," Larcher de Brito said of Hingis. "She is very smart. She also seems like a very nice person off the court. She is always smiling."
She's faced Monica Seles, Nicole Vaidisova and Maria Sharapova on the practice court and Larcher de Brito's first-round triumph in Miami puts her in select company: she is the seventh youngest player of all time to win a main draw WTA Tour match. She joins Mary Joe Fernandez (13 years, 6 months when she won in Miami in 1985), Jennifer Capriati (13 years, 11 months when she won in Boca Raton in 1990), Steffi Graf (13 years, 11 months, 10 days when she won at the French Open in 1983), Hingis (14 years, one week when she recorded her 1994 Zurich win), Kathy Rinaldi (14 years, three weeks for her 1981 Amelia Island victory) and Tracy Austin (who was 14 years, 1 month when she won in Portland in 1977).
Standing 5-feet-5 inches, Larcher de Brito presently faces a size and strength disparity against top players, but her understanding of the court, her court coverage and her ability to create acute angles off both backhand and forehand enable her to compensate for that size disadvantage. In the second round of the Sony Ericsson Open, she played Indian Wells champion Daniela Hantuchova to a tight first-set before Hantuchova began to punish her serve in scoring a 7-5, 6-0 victory.
Asked to assess the area she most immediately needs to improve, Larcher de Brito replied: "My serve. I need to work on my serve and maybe get my first serve percentage up."
The learning curve continues, but clearly Larcher de Brito is on an accelerated course. Tennis Week caught up with her in Bradenton for this interview.
Tennis Week: Michelle, how were you feeling going into the third-set tiebreak against Meghann Shaughnessy in your first main-draw WTA match in Miami last week and how did it feel when you actually won the match?
Michelle Larcher de Brito: I was really motivated after winning the second set and I wasn't feeling tired. I am only 14 and this was my first WTA Tour match so I didn't have much to lose. I just went out and played my best. After I won the last point I couldn't believe it though. I was in shock and just fell to the court.
Tennis Week: Do you remember your first time ever playing tennis? How did you begin playing and what made you love the game in the first place?
Michelle Larcher de Brito: Not really [I don't really remember] because I think I was only three years old when I first started to play. I would always go the club in Lisbon with my two older brothers and I would just pick up balls and hit them. I just wanted to do what my brothers were doing.
Tennis Week: How are you able to use your emotion so positively on court at such a young age and how important is emotion to your game?
Michelle Larcher de Brito: I have always been very emotional on court and pumped my fist similar to Rafael Nadal. It just happens when I am really into the match and it helps keep me positive on the court.
Tennis Week: Your groundstrokes and movement seem to be your strengths. How did you develop the strokes? Was it a lot of hitting? Did you use ball machines, hit against the back wall, with partners? Were your strokes always so natural looking or did you change them at all over the years?
Michelle Larcher de Brito: I don’t think I have done anything unusual to develop my groundstrokes, but they have always looked the same. I actually saw some old footage of me when I first came to the Bollettieri Academy and it was funny how similar my strokes are today.
Tennis Week: You've said you always liked Martina Hingis as a player. What do you like about her and her game?
Michelle Larcher de Brito: I like the way she develops points and opens up the court so well. She is very smart. She also seems like a very nice person off the court. She is always smiling.
Tennis Week: What gives you the greatest joy and satisfaction about playing tennis?
Michelle Larcher de Brito: I just really like the competition and being on the court fighting for every point. It makes it even more fun when you are playing in front of a crowd and they are supporting you and clapping for you like they were on center court when I played Daniela [Hantuchova].
Tennis Week: Was your entire family there for the win over Shaughnessy? How did your family respond to that match and in general can you talk about the support your family has provided?
Michelle Larcher de Brito: Since my family and I live in Bradenton they were all able to come down to Miami and watch me play. It really meant a lot to have them there for my first Sony Ericsson WTA Tour match because they are always so supportive. They were excited as well when I won and were really happy for me.
Tennis Week: What is your favorite thing to do when you're not playing tennis?
Michelle Larcher de Brito: I like to go to movies with my friends and go shopping. I also like to play soccer and go swimming as well as play with my dog, Armani. He is a Siberian Husky and he is like my mascot. He travels with me to a lot of tournaments.
Tennis Week: What is the funniest or most unusual experience you have ever had playing?
Michelle Larcher de Brito: I can't think of any funny experiences that have happened to me on court but I am sure some will. Playing on stadium court at the Sony Ericsson Open was really fun. Some of my friends from the Academy came down to watch and they were chanting my name and yelling during the entire match. It was awesome.
Tennis Week: What is your goal for this year?
Michelle Larcher de Brito: What tournaments are coming up next for you? I just want to keep working on my game and improving things like my serve and my volleys. I have some other short term goals but I try to keep them to myself and use them as self motivation. Like any other player, I want to me number one in the world one day and win Grand Slams.
But I, being poor, have only my dreams
I have spread my dreams under your feet
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams