Why You're Not Great

What separates the truly exceptional players?

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Catherine Harrison - JOHN BRANSTON

The Racquet Club of Memphis has been around for more than 30 years, and thousands of good tennis players have come through its junior development programs.

But Peter Lebedevs, who has been a teaching pro at the club since 1983, can count on two hands the ones who made it to even the lowest level of the pros in the last 25 years.

There was Audra Keller from Bartlett and Susan Gilchrist from Tuscaloosa, who both won some matches on the pro tour in singles or doubles. On the men's side, Keith Evans came within a point of beating one of the top 10 players in the world. Lewis Smith starred at Vanderbilt and tried the satellite tour for a month before telling Lebedevs "this is so hard it's ridiculous."

That's why there's some buzz this week over 15-year-old Catherine Harrison from Germantown, who advanced Tuesday to the third round of the National 18-and-under Clay Court tournament at the Racquet Club.

After beating the 17th-seeded player, Catherine said she has a chance to make the finals if she can get past her next match. Her opponent, who is seeded fourth, beat her last year in a third-set tiebreaker.

"Last year I completely mentally freaked out when I was up 4-1 in the tiebreaker," said Catherine. "I'm a lot stronger mentally now."

It takes a village and about 10,000 hours of practice to make a professional athlete.

Catherine started by choosing her parents well. Her father, Kent, is an executive with International Paper and a competitive runner and tennis player. Her mother, Jan, is a multi-talented musician and tennis player who gave up her high school teaching career to advance Catherine's career and accompany her to roughly 20 tournaments a year from coast to coast.

When she was four years old, Catherine started hitting balls with Racquet Club pro Rob Cadwallader, who would coach her for the next nine years. She still hits with two hands from both sides, as she did when she was barely strong enough to hold a racquet.

"She was impatient when she was younger and hit too hard," Cadwallader said. "But in the long run that pays off. They start to go in."

At 13, she and her mother moved to south Florida where she enrolled in former touring pro Harold Solomon's tennis academy. Five days a week, she did drills for two hours, played matches for two hours, and worked on conditioning for another hour. Jan says that in a typical week, Catherine would be on the court for 25 hours. This year they moved back to Germantown, where Catherine is home schooled and works out daily with the mens and womens teams at the University of Memphis. She also has two coaches and a strength trainer. If she does well in the nationals this week, she'll have to decide whether she wants to turn pro next year or settle for some of the estimated $14 million in college scholarship offers represented by the 74 schools and coaches attending the event.

"Catherine's potential is very high, but potential and talent means you've done nothing," said Lebedevs. "It's getting harder out there. Young players are training at the semi-professional level. The European mentality is that there is no college, you train to go pro."

With the exception of Florida and California, American training has not caught up with Europe. Part of the problem is real estate. A compact nation like France can bring all of its top junior players together easier than the United States can. European athletes who aren't ready for the pros often wind up on American college teams.

"All the college teams are better now," said Lebedevs, an Australian who played for Memphis from 1983-1987. "I didn't start playing until I was 12 years old. I kind of had to play catch-up, and I never quite caught up."

Neither did the rest of us, and that's why we're pulling for Catherine Harrison to live the dream.

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