Saturday, September 20, 2014

Gordon, 15, takes unlikely route to stardom

Michaela Gordon, 15, of Saratoga came within a tiebreaker of reaching the
semifinals of last week's $25,000 Redding Challenger. Photos by Paul Bauman
   It's a long way from Rapid City, S.D., to Wimbledon.
   Literally and even more so figuratively.
   South Dakota is known for Mount Rushmore, the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 and "Little House on the Prairie" by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
   But few South Dakotans have starred in professional sports. The state's most famous sports figures are:
   —Sparky Anderson, the late Hall of Fame baseball manager.
   —Billy Mills, the second Native American (after Jim Thorpe) to win an Olympic gold medal. He accomplished the feat in the 10,000 meters in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
   —Adam Vinatieri, the Indianapolis Colts' placekicker in his 19th NFL season. He's the fifth-leading scorer in league history and the first kicker to play on four Super Bowl champions.
   —Mike Miller, a Cleveland Cavaliers swingman who won NBA titles with the Miami Heat in 2012 and 2013.  
   —Becky Hammon, the seventh-leading scorer in WNBA history and recently named assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs. She is the first full-time female assistant in any of the four major American sports.
   —Mark Ellis, a St. Louis Cardinals second baseman in his 12th major-league season.
   Tennis? Forget it.  
   South Dakota — with a population of only 844,877, fifth smallest in the United States, and long, harsh winters — is to tennis what Alabama is to ice hockey.
   Michaela Gordon, though, negotiated the trek from Rapid City to the hallowed grounds of the All England Club. Rapid City, on the western side of South Dakota near Wyoming, is the state's second-largest city (behind bustling Sioux Falls) with a metropolitan-area population of 124,766.  
   Gordon, 15, was born in Chicago and lived in Rapid City from age 3 to 9. She then moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, first to Los Altos Hills (near Stanford) and last year to Saratoga (near San Jose). Playing on grass for the first time in July, she reached the junior girls quarterfinals at Wimbledon.
Gordon lived in South Dakota, of all places,
from age 3 to 9.
   As an amateur and the youngest player in last week's $25,000 Redding Challenger, Gordon advanced to her first quarterfinal in her sixth professional tournament.
   The 5-foot-8 (1.73-meter) Gordon stunned fourth-seeded Tammi Patterson, a 24-year-old Australian ranked No. 307 in the world, 6-4, 6-2 in the second round before losing to 6-foot-1 (1.85-meter) Alexandra Stevenson, 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (3).
   Stevenson, the 33-year-old daughter of basketball legend Julius Erving, in 1999 became the first female qualifier to reach the Wimbledon semifinals.  
   Gordon's performance in Redding will vault her from No. 939 in the world to about No. 594 on Monday. Among juniors 18 and under, she is No. 85 internationally and No. 17 in the United States. 
   "I don't know how I got good at tennis, because the training (in South Dakota) wasn't that great, and I wasn't really serious about it," Gordon conceded in Redding. "South Dakota is like a really small town, and it's not known for tennis. Everyone knows everyone."
   Here's how Gordon became good at tennis: She's a prodigy.
   Robert Gordon, a surgeon who played tennis at Northwestern, introduced his daughter, the middle of five children, to tennis when she was 4. By age 8, Michaela dazzled coach Wayne Sleight at the Tennis Center of the Black Hills in Rapid City with her ability.
   "She's got fast hands and great footwork," Sleight said in a 2007 story in the Black Hills Pioneer. "She's also a great listener, and she's very smart. She calculates the game better than most 16-year-olds. She has all the tools to reach the top level. Most important is she loves practicing."
   The Gordons, however, did not move to the Bay Area to develop Michaela's game.
   "It was a little bit of (Robert's) job and the fact that I have a lot of family in the area," explained Michaela's mother, LuShan.
   Shortly after moving, Michaela won the girls 10-and-under title in the prestigious Little Mo national championships in 2009 in Austin, Texas. Andy Roddick won the boys 10 crown in 1992.
   Gordon doesn't dwell on her accomplishments, though.
   "All her trophies are put away in her closet," said LuShan, a non-practicing dentist. "She's not one to display them. It's funny. She goes to friends' houses, and they have trophies, and that's their whole life. It's interesting to me that that's not all of what defines her, even though she spends so much time on tennis.
   " ... It's more, 'What's the next hurdle?' She's looking ahead a little bit. I think that's a good thing, actually."
   What else defines Michaela?
   "She's a deep thinker," LuShan said. "She's a really smart kid. One of the things that helps her on the tennis court is she does think and finds out a way to defeat her opponent."
   Michaela, who trains at the Eagle Fustar Tennis Academy, listed aggressiveness and her serve and two-handed backhand as strengths. She added that she's "definitely very competitive."
Gordon practices during the Redding Challenger.
   Gordon made her junior Grand Slam debut at last year's U.S. Open, dispatching Darya Kasatkina of Russia 6-4, 6-3 in the second round before falling to Louisa Chirico of Harrison, N.Y., 6-7 (2), 7-5, 6-2.
   Kasatkina won this year's French Open girls title, and Chirico, who turned pro in May out of high school, is the 218th-ranked woman in the world. They are two and three years older, respectively, than Gordon.
   Chirico also beat Gordon in the quarterfinals of the USTA Girls 18 National Championships last month in San Diego. 
   Gordon almost didn't play at Wimbledon this year.
   "It was a long way to go," LuShan reasoned, "but my husband really wanted to go, so we went as a family. We said (to Michaela), 'We know you haven't played on grass a lot, but just see how you like it.' First day, she walked out there and said, 'I like grass.' "
   Grass, as it turned out, suits Gordon's game.
   "It's really fast, the ball bounces really low, and the points are pretty short," she explained. "The more aggressive you are, the better it is for you."
   As a qualifier at Wimbledon, Gordon knocked off 14th-seeded Sandra Samir of Egypt in the first round before defeating Great Britain's Isabelle Wallace and Maia Lumsden.
   Wallace had a point to lead 5-1 on her serve in the third set, but Gordon rallied to win 6-2, 5-7, 8-6.
   "It was funny because at 6-all (in the third set), I forgot that you have to win by two games," Gordon said with a chuckle. "I thought it was a tiebreaker, so after I won the first point, I thought I was still serving.
   "It was a really good win because the whole crowd was for her the whole time. It was good for me to have that knowledge that I can still win when everyone is against me."
   On one hand, Gordon sounds like a typical teenager, sprinkling her speech with "like," "definitely" and "random." On the other hand, she sounds mature for her age, using the words "procrastinate" and "interact." 
   A high school sophomore, Gordon has studied independently since the eighth grade.
   "I do Laurel Springs, which is a, like, private online program," said Gordon, who also decided to resume playing the piano a year ago as a hobby. "It's pretty good because I have the same textbooks  that I would have in regular school. But it's difficult because it's easy to procrastinate, so it's really important to be self-motivated and do your work every day."
   Gordon misses attending school.
   "I miss my teachers, and I miss my friends," she lamented. "I miss having someone there to teach you and talk to you. Now, I don't have teachers I can interact with."
   Gordon prefers this lifestyle, though.
   "Definitely," she asserted. "Being able to play tennis and travel the world is definitely worth it."

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