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College or tennis, but not both, for King

Vania King is steering a patient course on a track where speedometers are usually stuck on hurry-up.

The poised 17-year-old has quietly played her way into the top 100 -- she reached a career-high No. 89 ranking last week -- propelling her into the main draw at Roland Garros, the first Grand Slam event where she's been an automatic. (King lost her first-round match at the French Open to Viktoriya Kutuzova in straight sets.)

She won matches at Miami and Indian Wells earlier this year, defeated a top-30 player, and played doubles on the Fed Cup team against Germany last month. All this without taking a paycheck.

Do not adjust your screen. That's right -- King is an amateur, currently the highest-ranked amateur on the WTA Tour.

However, she thinks, talks and reasons like a pro.

King, who will complete her high school degree by correspondence sometime within the next year, says she's still weighing whether or not she wants to go to college. And if she does, she says, she probably won't return to professional tennis. It's all or nothing, either way.

"My goal is not to be a top-50 player," King, currently ranked No. 91, said from her hotel room in Paris over the weekend. "I want to make it big. Looking at the other girls who have gone to college and then come back to the tour, I think it's pretty tough.

"I've already told people, I won't go for a year or two or four and then come back. That's it. If I go, I want to get a degree from a good school that will give me financial security for the rest of my life."

In case you're wondering about King's high-achieving outlook, there's a bit of precedent in her family. Her parents, David and Karen, emigrated to California from Taiwan 25 years ago and made their living working long hours as owners of a fish-and-chips restaurant.

Vania's brother Phillip graduated from Duke; he's ranked No. 358 in the world and trying to work his way up by playing lower-level events on the tour. Twin sisters Mindy and Ivana are sophomores at Penn and Princeton, respectively. Ivana was named an all-Ivy League doubles player this season.

Phillip, Mindy and Ivana were prep tennis sensations at Long Beach Poly High, where the twins once faced off in a league singles final. Phillip won back-to-back U.S. junior championships in Kalamazoo, Mich., in 1999 and 2000, defeating Mardy Fish and Robby Ginepri in those finals.

The baby of the close-knit family could surpass them all if she decides to stick with tennis. Vania has climbed more than 600 spots in the rankings since the beginning of the 2005 season.

"My goal is not to be a top-50 player. I want to make it big. Looking at the other girls who have gone to college and then come back to the tour, I think it's pretty tough. I've already told people, I won't go for a year or two or four and then come back. That's it. If I go, I want to get a degree from a good school that will give me financial security for the rest of my life."
Vania King

Her parents picked her name partly because it was an anagram of Ivana and partly because they liked its original Russian meaning: "gracious gift of God."

Vania had a solid and precocious junior career, reaching No. 4 in the Girls' 18 World Junior rankings in 2003 when she was just 14, the same year she began playing U.S. Pro Circuit events. She won the USTA spring international championships last year, defeating frequent doubles partner Alexa Glatch.

Late last summer, King took full advantage of her wild card in the U.S. Open qualifying tournament, fencing her way into the main draw and winning her first-round match against Klara Koukalova of the Czech Republic. She then reached her first career pro final at a Pro Circuit tournament in Tucson, Ariz.

In February, King advanced to the singles and doubles semifinals of a WTA Tier III event in Bangalore, India before being felled by a stomach bug. Her game apparently impressed India Times correspondent Prajwal Hegde, who wrote that King had "wheels for feet and groundstrokes as solid as a bison's behind."

King made a splash in arid Indian Wells in March by beating then-No. 27 Koukalova to reach the third round, and won her first-round match at the Nasdaq-100 Open as well.

In April, U.S. Fed Cup captain Zina Garrison invited King to play doubles for the team in the quarterfinals at Germany.

"If you had told me that last year, I would have just laughed," King said. "It was an amazing experience, very honoring for me."

The U.S. had already clinched the best-of-five tie by the time King and Shenay Perry -- who is right behind her in the rankings at No. 92 -- took the court, thanks to two singles wins by Jamea Jackson and one by Jill Craybas. The young tandem lost to Anna-Lena Groenefeld and Jasmin Woehr, but King still earned the distinction of being the first-ever amateur to play for the U.S. Fed Cup team, according to USTA research.

King's recent success "isn't because of the stuff I've done over the last year," she said. "It's been a process. I'm lucky to have gotten a quick result and jumped so high [in the rankings]. A year and a half ago, I wasn't feeling that great about tennis."

That was when King's father, who is also her coach, decided to deconstruct her backhand and zero in on her serve. "I changed my stroke, my footwork, the way I swing -- everything," Vania said. "I lost confidence in my backhand for a while. You get into pressure situations and you don't have anything to rely on."

She survived that transition and has prospered since. "I credit my Dad for thinking into the future," she said.

King's career winnings -- or more accurately, the money she has foregone -- are approaching the $100,000 mark. (As an amateur, some of her travel expenses are covered.) She's earned more than half of that amount already this season. But as she approaches that school or deep-end-of-the-pool decision, she says she and her family are determined not to make money the only factor.

Her brother, with whom she is very close, has seen both sides. "I will admit from a tennis point of view, [going to college] is a completely and utterly disastrous choice," Phillip King told Ventura County Star reporter Rhiannon Potkey in an e-mail interview for a story that ran last month.

"Although I was in the top 200s by the time my junior career was over, it wasn't enough to sacrifice a college education and furthering of one's experiences in life," Phillip King wrote. "Going pro is a one-way street. If you go to college, and don't make it in tennis, you can still live. If you went pro and didn't make it, those are the names you never hear about."

But Vania's choice, which she expects to make early next year, will be her own.

"I'm quite surprised to be where I am," she said. "I haven't gotten that sudden flash of inspiration or motivation about what to do, so I think I'll wait until that happens."

Bonnie DeSimone is a freelancer who contributes frequently to ESPN.com.