Tornado Black Has Been Up, Down, All Around Since Open Breakthrough
With a name like Tornado Alicia Black and a runner-up finish in the junior girls US Open, a certain amount of attention is to be expected.
Yet there was Black, a 16-year-old from Florida, less than a year removed from signing autographs in Times Square, all alone at the airport again. In Europe.
"With both girls playing, I can't be in two different countries or two different cities at the same time, and I can't afford it," said Gayal Black, who was referencing her other tennis-playing daughter, 13-year-old Tyra Hurricane Black. "I taught them from 12 and 13, they had to be independent. Alicia learned how to handle the pressure all alone."
Not to mention the details.
"I have to get to the airport myself, find the hotel, book practice courts, find practice partners, go to dinner," Tornado Black said. "They're just great life skills for someone so young. I feel like I've grown a lot as a person."
Of course I want to win some Slams, be the top in the world, and I really want to play in the Olympics.Tornado Black
She dismissed the idea that traveling alone on another continent is scary.
"I have a lot of friends over there and we help each other a lot, so that's good," Black said. "I'm not complaining about it. I get to travel the world and play tennis. It's tough financially to bring a coach with me, so I'm going to have to deal with it myself."
In addition to being more worldly as she returns to the Open next week to continue on her journey toward tennis validation, Black also is a little wiser and more experienced.
At 566 in the world rankings and fourth in the junior world rankings (18 spots higher than she sat following her loss to No. 2 Ana Konjuh as a wild card in the 2013 junior US Open final), Black has learned there is no rushing greatness.
"Of course I want to win some Slams, be the top in the world, and I really want to play in the Olympics," said Black, who will once again play junior singles at Flushing Meadows after losing in the qualifying event for the main women's draw. "But I'm just taking it one tournament at a time. I'm not saying, 'In two years I want to win this tournament.' Or, 'In three years, I want to do this or that.' It's just day-by-day for now."
Indeed, it has hardly been the whirlwind Gayal Black may have envisioned for Tornado since her success last September. Still beset by the significant financial demands of raising a child intent on reaching the pinnacle of her sport, and now without the steady financial backing of the USTA after a coaching dispute, "it's a real struggle," Gayal said.
"Sometimes, I don't know how we pay rent the first of each month," said Gayal, who is now separated from her husband, Sylvester Black.
Tornado Black signed with the sports agency Octagon at age 13, and at 14 signed endorsement deals with Nike and Head, which helps, but not enough, Gayal said.
"We thought she'd get more sponsors after the US Open, but it's not happening," she said. "She's proven herself with results. I'm really surprised some companies in the U.S. haven't stepped up."
Black's agent, Mike Scherer, said her development as a player is Octagon's "main focus" and that it is continuing "to cultivate more support she needs both on and off the court."
"You always want to think long-term, even on the commercial side of things," he said. "Our focus is on building a brand, and to do that well, you need to take a long-term approach. She's very young and people are just starting to get to know who she is. As she continues to play and have success, there's certainly a big upside."
There have been both downs and ups over the past 12 months, though the ups have been encouraging.
As a wild card in her WTA Tour main-draw debut in Acapulco, Mexico, in late February, Black played No. 6 seed and 42nd-ranked Bojana Jovanovski in the first round, losing 6-4, 7-5 in a tight match, and was rewarded with a lengthy standing ovation from the crowd.
Over the spring, Black made it to the quarters of the junior Italian Open and lost in the first round of the French Open juniors before winning one match at Roehampton and reaching the quarters at the Wimbledon juniors. She was joined by Lawrence Carpio, who worked with Black last year and began coaching her part-time again in May, in the middle of a seven-week European circuit after travelling alone for the first half of it.
After returning to the United States, she traveled again by herself to Evansville, Indiana, for a $10,000 pro futures event in July and won the singles title and a $1,568 check. She had to pay one-way air travel there, and adding in hotel bills and cab fare, she spent $2,000. The USTA gave her a $1,500 check to help cover those expenses, Gayal said.
In late July, Black won two qualifying rounds at the Citi Open in Washington, D.C., including a win over then-218th-ranked Louisa Chirico. And in her first-round match, she was up 4-2 and had a game point against 53rd-ranked Zarina Diyas before losing 10 straight games and the match.
"That's where it's important to have a coach with you, especially at a tournament where she could have had one coaching break per set," Carpio said. "I think it would have helped her to have some support there."
The USTA provided coaching and financial support for Black on a few occasions over the past three years and for the first several months of this year, until she decided she wanted to stick with just one of its coaches, who could not give her a full-time commitment.
"You can't ask a child to just travel with anybody; they have to pick who they travel and train with," Gayal Black said. "The USTA said this is who you're having, like it or leave it, and we understand. But it didn't work out, so we left."
Ola Malmqvist, the head of women's tennis for the USTA development program, said the United States has less than a quarter of the women's coaches (10) of the other Grand Slam countries. France, he estimated, has nearly 80.
"We're working with 11 or 12 full-time pros [along with amateurs] with very few resources, so no one is getting one-on-one coaching," he said.
Both Malmqvist and the Blacks acknowledged there were a few incidents -- issues with Tornado's attitude -- that contributed to the mutual parting.
"She knows we're asking for discipline and you have to be respectful," said Malmqvist. "She said she thought she was ready for it and she was definitely a lot better. She's not a bad girl at all and she's a very, very good player. But there were a few incidents before, and Alicia knew if there were any more, we will send you home the next day."
Malmqvist said coaching was still made available to her at the French and Wimbledon juniors, but the USTA did not provide travel expenses after she stopped working regularly with its coaches.
"As far as money, we don't have a lot," he said of an organization whose spending habits were the target of a New York Times investigation. "But she has received more grant money than anyone else in the country, pros included."
Malmqvist said he is happy when a player can work successfully with a coach from the private sector. And Black may soon join forces with Rick Macci, who coached the Williams sisters, Jennifer Capriati, Andy Roddick and Maria Sharapova during their junior years.
"I think the girl has 'Top 10' written all over her," said Macci, who once employed Gayal and coached her oldest daughter, Nicole, when she won the Orange Bowl 14s. "At this stage of the game, Tornado just needs someone to make it a little easier to have that opportunity. She's a great competitor, has world-class timing and just needs a better serve."
Macci said he is not deterred by Tornado's conflict with the USTA.
"She's strong-minded, a tough cookie and that's what you want," he said. "I don't want to work with a marshmallow. ... I've been around enough champions and I've seen it. They're wired differently. Tornado is wired differently, and I love that."
In the midst of the coaching carousel, all agree that Black has had little choice but to mature.
"Right now I'm 500 and working my way up," she said of her ranking. "I'm pretty excited about that and I feel like each tournament I keep progressing. I still have a lot to work on to be the top in the world, but I feel like I'm getting closer and closer to my goals."