At 13, Sachia Vickery is set on being next Serena
By Mic Huber
BRADENTON Space is becoming scarce in the cluttered condominium, a place in Bradenton where Sachia Vickery finds time to sleep and dream of tennis championships.
Framed photos crowd a corner table. Taken last year at Wimbledon, they are shots of Vickery with people who have what she wants. There is one of Vickery with Rafael Nadal, who just won the French Open for the fourth time. And another with Anna Ivanovic, who just became No. 1 in the world and won her first Grand Slam tournament at the French Open.
There is one with tennis legend Martina Navratilova, who ended her career by winning more titles than anyone in the game. And there is her favorite: a photo of Vickery standing next to Roger Federer, the top player in the game today.
"He smells so good," Vickery told her mother, Paula Liverpool.
The smell of victory is always alluring.
Competing with the photos are the tennis trophies that Vickery is rapidly accumulating. Recent additions are the trophies Vickery took home for winning the Easter Bowl and Gator Bowl titles.
The absolute newest, and her favorite one, is for winning the first International Tennis Federation tournament she was eligible to play in. One week ago she breezed to the title at the Copa Carialri, a grade 5 ITF junior event, without losing a set.
"I was so happy. Not too many people win their first ITF tournament on their first try," Vickery said about winning the 18-Under tournament two weeks after turning 13. "I wasn't expecting to go that far. But I took it one match at a time and played really well."
Just call her Serena
Vickery has been stunning on the tennis court almost from the moment she saw that racket in the Dollar Store. At the age of 5, Vickery knew what she wanted and pleaded with her grandmother to buy the shiny racket.
"I liked it so much," Vickery said. So much so that she broke the strings the first day she used it.
First she broke the strings. Then she broke a window at her family's home. That's when her mother decided it was time to seek help.
New to the tennis world, Paula Liverpool could only take her daughter at her word when Sachia confidently exclaimed that she was going to be the next Serena Williams. Liverpool began asking around, trying to locate anybody willing to give the next Serena lessons. One acquaintance mentioned a Bahamian woman who had given her daughter lessons years go, but wasn't certain if she still was in the area.
Liverpool finally located a telephone number for Gerri Braxton and left a message on the answering machine. Braxton, who still gives lessons at Pembroke, now says she wished she had saved the message. It was a message which went something like: "Miss Gerri, I have a daughter who thinks she is going to be the next Serena Williams. She has never played before and we want to meet you."
Braxton didn't now what to expect. But when Sachia arrived the 30-year tennis coach was impressed not only with the athleticism of the little girl who knew nothing about playing tennis, but also her confidence.
"For the longest time she insisted on being called Serena," Braxton said. "When Serena wasn't doing well, she would have us call her Venus. But it was mostly Serena.
"She announced that she was going to be, 'better than those Williams girls'. She was just so confident and her athleticism was incredible. She is really special."
It was the success of the Williams sisters in a predominantly white sport that intrigued Vickery and made her believe anything was possible.
"I watched Serena and Venus on television all the time," Vickery said about her fascination with the tennis superstars. "I liked their attitude and how they would always fight for every point. I looked up to them."
A taste of the big time
It wasn't long before the next Serena met the original Serena, and the rest of the Williams family. Richard Williams, who has called Sachia, 'The next Venus or Serena on the way,' took an interest in the tiny black girl with big dreams.
He worked with Sachia for one summer and has stayed in contact with the family ever since.
It was Richard Williams who helped Sachia get her first look at Wimbledon, the grand tournament that holds the most fascination for Vickery.
Ironically, Sachia's great-grandfather, Carl Liverpool, resides within walking distance of the hallowed Wimbledon courts. On their way to a tournament in Croatia, Sachia and her family spent time visiting her great-grandfather in England. Paula Liverpool called Richard Williams, who provided the family passes to Wimbledon.
Not only did Williams deliver the passes, but he took Sachia around and showed her around the backstage of the world's most famous tournament.
"He took Sachia everywhere. It was so inspirational," Paula Liverpool said. "He introduced Sachia to the stringing staff and said, 'This is where you will get your rackets strung.' Almost as if it was a done deal that she will be playing there, he showed her where she would eat lunch and the tunnel where she would walk to the courts.
Sachia believed. When the family returned to Carl Liverpool's home, Sachia asked her great-grandfather, "Will you still be alive when I come play Wimbledon?"
Paula Liverpool said her 96-year-old grandfather winked at her, then told Sachia that he certainly would be there.
Keeping the dream alive
The two people who rarely miss Sachia Vickery's matches are her longtime traveling coach, Otis Johnson, and her grandmother, Vilma Liverpool. They travel to each tournament Sachia plays while Paula Liverpool, a single mother who still carries a heavy accent from her homeland of Guyana, works two jobs to help keep the dream alive.
Liverpool works daily as an academic advisor for Kaplan University, an online school. On weekends she is a bartender at Club Rolexx, an upscale strip club in North Miami.
"It is very difficult," Paula Liverpool admits. "Sometimes I don't get much sleep. But somebody has got to pay the bills and I want Sachia to have the chance to realize her dreams."
Things have gotten a little easier now that Vickery has a scholarship to the Nick Bollettieiri Tennis Academy at IMG Academies in Bradenton and the USTA has stepped up its program of helping promising young players. The family, who has a home in Miramar, now spends most of their time in Bradenton when not on the road at tournaments.
"I had heard a lot about the academy and was really excited about coming here," Vickery said. "The training is really good and the coaches are really nice."
There were a couple of surprises as well. Like the 5 a.m. practice sessions.
"That was a shock. I thought they were joking," Vickery said.
It's no joke to Bollettieri, who calls Vickery a "little powerhouse" and is impressed with her ability and potential.
"She is not going to be very big but she is very strong physically," Bollettieri said. "She is unbelievable in her movement. She covers the court like a leopard. She is relentless and very, very competitive."
The youngest player in the ITF event in Costa Rica, and the only player in the tournament who had to win a qualifying match to get into the draw, Vickery served notice that she was for real when she knocked off Gina Suarez 6-4, 6-4 in the second round. Suarez was seeded No. 2 in the tournament and had won three ITF events.
"I think that was an important match," said Vickery, sitting on a couch and clutching Princess, a Yorkie dog her mother got for her after Sachia reached the final of the 12-under division of the Eddie Herr tournament in December.
This week Vickery took another major step in her path toward tennis' upper echelon when she easily moved to grass courts, and a bigger ITF event. Vickery stunned second-seeded Nicole Bartnik in three sets, her first win over a top-100 ITF player in the first round of the grade 3 ITF International Grass Court Championships in Philadelphia. She followed that Tuesday by beating Breaunna Addison to reach the quarterfinals.
Wednesday, Paula Liverpool had to catch a flight back to Florida and was unable to watch her little girl beat Fidan Manashirova 6-1, 7-6 (3) to reach the semifinals. She didn't know the result until her plane landed in Miami.
A loss in the semifinals Thursday was soothed by some pizza and shopping. Then it was off to Bermuda for another tournament.
Another successful week would mean less space, and more hardware, in that crowded condo.