Tammy Hendler, it seems, was destined for fame. At 4, she starred in a television commercial for a dairy cream and modeled in fashion shows in her native South Africa.
"I was a cute little kid," Hendler said with a charming laugh. Now, though, Hendler performs on the tennis court. At 15, she already has:
- Represented Belgium three times in the Fed Cup, the women's prestigious international team competition. Hendler's mother, Rachel, was born in the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo).
- Beaten three of the top 200 players in the world this year.
- Been ranked No. 5 in the world among girls 18 and under.
- Reached the girls singles semifinals at Wimbledon three weeks ago despite missing two months in the spring because of a strained quadriceps.
- Become the youngest player in World TeamTennis this season as a member of the Capitals.
"The Belgian Babe" - as the designer of Hendler's Web site (www.tamarynhendler.be) dubbed her for publicity purposes - began playing tennis at 4 because a family neighbor was a teaching pro.
The Hendlers moved to Atlanta when Tammy was 5 because of unrest before and after apartheid was abolished, and to Bradenton, Fla., the home of the famed Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, when Tammy was 9. She has trained there ever since, turning pro last year while retaining her junior eligibility. Hendler's father, Mark, first saw something special in Tammy as a tennis player when, at 7, she finished second in the "Little Mo" 8-and-under tournament.
"It's a tough tournament, and she was such a good fighter," said Mark, a native South African and former businessman in the food industry who travels full time with Tammy. "Other girls were better, but Tammy beat them because she was such a competitor."
She still is. Hendler bounces on her toes between points like a boxer,pumps her fist after winning key points and exhorts the crowd at Allstate Stadium in Roseville.
"If you want someone on your team who will fight tooth and nail to the bitter end, you want Tammy," said Bollettieri, who has coached Grand Slam singles champions Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Monica Seles and Maria Sharapova.
Hendler also is known for her punishing groundstrokes, especially her forehand.
"A lot of coaches have toldme mybaseline game is top-20 (caliber) now, but I have so much to improve on," she said. "So many girls have reached their potential at 15, 16. That's definitely not where I am."
Hendler listed fitness, serves and returns as areas in which to improve.
Listed at 5-foot-8 and 122 pounds, Hendler "tends to be big-boned," Bollettieri said. "She will have to work extra hard to be in tip-top shape."
Mark Hendler, however, said Tammy "is not mad about training. She's not mentally or physically ready to train three hours a day. She's still growing. I don't want her to get injured."
Wayne Bryan, in his seventh year as Sacramento's coach, declined to compare Hendler to former Capitals prodigies Nicole Vaidisova, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Michelle Larcher de Brito. Vaidisova, 6 feet, reached No. 7 in the world last year at 18.
"I've been impressed with all four," Bryan said. "Tammy definitely has big-time groundstrokes and a lot of guts. She competes well."
But Hendler has won only two of 10 sets in women's singles and three of 10 in women's doubles for the defending champion Capitals. Because of WTT's shortened format, she said she's not discouraged. Hendler has lost in singles by one point twice and by two points once.
"I don't think I'm struggling at all," she said last week before going 4-13 in singles games on the Capitals' East Coast trip. "I'm not getting blown off the court. Three matches have been 5-4. The stats might say I'm (close to) last, but I can't accept losing by one point (as a loss)," Hendler said.
And let's face it - Hendler is still just a kid. She will be eligible to get her driver's license when she turns 16 on Aug. 12 and soon will enter the 10th grade in her online classes. However, Hendler plans to leave the juniors after the U.S. Open in early September.
"I got to No. 5 in the world. What more do I have to prove?" she said. "Now I have to prove I'm a top player in the pros."