Monday, October 17, 2011

After struggling, ex-Capital Hendler on the rise

   It was all going to be so easy.
   Tammy Hendler was going to skyrocket to stardom. Maybe even go all the way to
No. 1.
   After all, at age 15, hadn't she:
   --Represented Belgium three times in the Fed Cup, the prestigious women's international team competition?
   --Beaten three of the top 200 players in the world?
   --Been ranked No. 5 in the world among girls 18 and under?
   --Reached the girls singles semifinals at Wimbledon?
   --Become the youngest active player in World TeamTennis as a member of the Sacramento Capitals in 2008?
   And hadn't Belgium, about the size of Maryland, recently produced two No. 1 women in Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin?
   Professional tennis, though, has been anything but easy for Hendler. She finished 2008 at No. 350 in the world, 2009 at No. 365 and last year at No. 367. At least she was consistent.
   "My best results were at 13, 14, 15," Hendler, who's still a teenager after turning 19 in August, marveled during last month's Redding Challenger. "I was so tremendously young. I was out of the juniors at 15, which is crazy.
   "If I could go back, I would definitely take more time to develop physically. Starting at 14, I played 20 weeks a year on the tour for five years, and it took a toll on me.
   "I was (near) 260 (in the world) at 16. Until a couple of months ago, I would have died for that ranking. But I feel I'm twice the player now."
    After cutting ties with the Belgian Tennis Federation and getting fitter, Tammy is enjoying a career renaissance.
   In $50,000 tournaments, the 5-foot-9 Hendler won her first career doubles title in Lexington, Ky., with American Chi Chi Scholl in July and reached the singles quarterfinals as a qualifier in Bronx, N.Y., in August. 
   Competing in $25,000 events in Japan during the two weeks before Redding, Hendler advanced to the semifinals, then won her second career singles title. Seeded seventh in Redding, she succumbed to fatigue and cramps in a first-round loss to wild card Allie Will, the top player for reigning NCAA champion Florida.
   Hendler arrived in Redding on Monday night of the tournament and won in the first round of doubles on Tuesday before facing Will on Wednesday.
   "I was seeded here for the first time and pushed myself to come, but your body is the boss," lamented Hendler, who defaulted her next doubles match. "I guess I got punished for it."
   After recovering at home in Bradenton Fla., for a week, Hendler played in two $25,000 tournaments in Indonesia. She won the singles title in Jakarta, beating No. 107 Iryna Bremond of France in the semifinals, and reached the singles quarterfinals and captured the doubles title in Palembang. Hendler is now ranked a career-high No. 232 in singles.
   "A lot of people counted me out before Japan," the outspoken, gregarious Hendler admitted on the phone from Bradenton, where she trains at the IMG Bollettieri Tennis Academy, before leaving for Indonesia. "Nick (Bollettieri) has always been supportive. I told him yesterday, 'Thank you, Nick. You always believed in me.' He's had a big role in my tennis career."
  Bollettieri did not return phone calls seeking comment.  
  Hendler was born in South Africa, like her father and coach, Mark. Her mother, Rachel, is a native of the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). The family has lived in Bradenton since Tammy was 9, except for the 1 1/2 years in 2008 and 2009 they spent in Belgium.
   "I don't think Belgium was the right environment for me," Hendler said. "I have a good support team here at the IMG academy."
   The low point for Hendler came at the end of her stay in Belgium.
  "I told my dad I didn't want to play anymore," she said. "We came back here (to Bradenton), and within two weeks, I said, 'I want to get back on the court.' "
   Hendler left the Belgian Tennis Federation, which had paid all her expenses, at the beginning of last year.
   "They put totally unrealistic expectations on me," Hendler charged. "It was the biggest disaster of my life. A good part of my development was held back because of them. At 17, they wanted me to be top 100, which is totally insane unless you're 6-2. But it's over, it made me stronger, and I learned from it. I have no contact with them."
   Perhaps Belgium was spoiled by the success of Clijsters and Henin. Yves Freson, the president of the Belgian Tennis Federation, did not reply to an e-mai seeking comment.
   Hendler would consider playing for the United States.
   "A lot can change if the (Belgian) federation comes around and supports me," she said. "But if America comes around before then, I'd take it in a minute."
  When Mark Hendler was asked if he would do anything differently in retrospect, he replied without hesitation: "Not moved to Belgium. Tammy was 15, 16 (years old) and No. 5 in the world in the juniors. She started playing pro tournaments and doing well. But as she says, 'That was lucky; this is real.' "
   After improving her mental state by leaving Belgium and the federation, Hendler addressed her physical condition. By doubling her off-court training to 10 hours a week this year and eating healthier, she lost 20 to 25 pounds from her Capitals days. She said she weighs 65 to 66 kilograms (143 to 145 pounds).
   "Not many girls are as fit as I am now," Hendler said. "I can physically outfight them."
   Hendler has fond memories of her stint with the Capitals, who went 8-6 in the 2008 regular season and lost in the semifinals of the WTT playoffs.
   "It was a time I'll never forget," Hendler said. "I had so much fun. It was a great team. I would consider playing again. This year, I was too late. If I had the opportunity to play again, I definitely would."
   After the Capitals drafted Hendler, The Sacramento Bee interviewed her on the telephone. Regarding tennis, she said: "I love it, love it, love it, and I'm sure I will until the day I die."
   Does she still feel that way?
   "I can honestly say I love it more now than on the phone," Hendler said. "Success makes you love it even more. I've developed as a person so much. My dad has been by my side the whole time. He has great discipline, I've grown up, and it has given me perspective. If you don't dedicate yourself to your business, you won't be as successful as you want, and this is my business.
   "What's not to love about it? At 16, I just knew if I stayed up and watched movies, it would be too late and I'd have to work out the next morning. What 16-year-old wants to do that?"
   Back then, Hendler didn't think about where she'd be ranked at 19.
   "I just wanted to be No. 1," she said. "I still want to be No. 1. It's what I wake up thinking about and what I go to bed thinking about. But I'm keeping it realistic. I've learned my lesson, and my goal is the top 20. When you're there, a good Grand Slam result can put you in the top 10. If I get to the top 20, I'll be very happy."
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