Gone for now, but Larcher de Brito won't be forgotten

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- Michelle Larcher de Brito went from playing on Stadium Court to being a spectator on an outer court at the Sony Ericsson Open within the space of a few days. It's a psychic journey the promising 14-year-old Portugal-born, Florida-raised player will be getting to know very well.

The compact 5-foot-5, cherubic-faced Larcher de Brito, who turned pro after her birthday in January, is the walking, talking, baseline-bashing embodiment of tennis' global economy. Her father is Portuguese and her mother South African, lineage that gives Michelle's speech a slightly exotic lilt.

Accompanied by her family, Larcher de Brito moved to the United States when she was 9 to train with guru Nick Bollettieri in Bradenton, Fla. Her status as a client of IMG, which owns the tournament informally known as the Fifth Grand Slam, greased the skids for her to get a wild card here.

Larcher de Brito kicked open the door that was propped for her, defeating 43rd-ranked American veteran Meghann Shaughnessy in the first round, 3-6, 6-2, 7-6 (3). She held her own for a set with No. 12 Daniela Hantuchova in a night match on the big stage before her serve let her down. The Slovakian player asserted herself and prevailed 7-5, 6-0.

It was an intriguing performance in Larcher de Brito's second professional event, but any further measuring of her progress at this level will have to wait. She's about to enter the professional hibernation mandated by the WTA, which allows players her age to accept only one wild card per season. Next year she'll be permitted two.

So, like a tropical flower that blooms briefly and then goes dormant for a year, the eighth-grader will go back to the junior circuit and hone her game out of the bright glare that shone on previous prodigies like Jennifer Capriati and Mary Joe Fernandez.

Larcher de Brito was to have played in the Luxilon Cup, the junior event held here during the second week of the tournament, but came up against a grown-up reality of the sport: an aching back. Perhaps that accounts for her perspective.

"I love competing, but I like to have breaks," said Larcher de Brito, who occasionally hits with Bollettieri alumnae Monica Seles and Nicole Vaidisova. "I don't like to play back-to-back tournaments over and over."

The age-eligibility restriction is "a good rule," Larcher de Brito said. "It doesn't overwork the players. You can't go straight from juniors to pros."

She wore flip-flops and a denim miniskirt and easily could have blended in with the girls who crowd the rail after matches, holding giant tennis balls to be autographed.

But Larcher de Brito's desire and competitiveness is clearly advanced for her age. She yelled and fist-pumped on nearly every point in her match against Shaughnessy, saying "Go!" and "Right now!" She argued line calls, slammed a ball into the court at one point and threw her racket in disgust. On each of her crisp, powerful ground strokes -- a hallmark of Bollettieri's progeny -- she uncorked a wail that trails off into a whistle as distinctive as Monica Seles' grunts or Maria Sharapova's shriek.

After the match, she sank to her knees and burst into tears, then continued to cry as she embraced her parents and 18-year-old twin brothers.

Shaughnessy, who wasn't happy with her own play, said a few days later that she took no offense at Larcher de Brito's expressive style.

"She really has a good idea of what she's doing, and she has no fear, so she goes for her shots even when it's close," Shaughnessy said. "I think she's got a great future ahead of her. As far as her attitude, people want it bad now and they're not afraid to show it. She's young. I didn't think anything of it. I was yelling out there too."

Larcher de Brito wasn't quite as animated during her match with Hantuchova in the 13,800-capacity stadium. Hantuchova, asked whether her young opponent acted her age, said simply, "Yes."

Both matches featured the novelty of seeing Bollettieri, the grizzled Obi-Wan Kenobi of the sport, do something he'd never done in his long career -- walk onto the court between sets to offer in-match coaching, the ongoing experiment being conducted by the WTA.

Bollettieri pronounced Larcher de Brito "a rare breed" and said he's pleased with the foundation of her game. "To make a breakthrough in a tournament of this level is fantastic," he rasped.

He allowed as to how the teenager can be a bit of a hothead, but said he likes her fire and doesn't want to tamp it down too much. "We'll keep it under control," said Bollettieri. "If you're in the big arena, you have to act like you're in the big arena."

Larcher de Brito has quickly become a big figure in her small native country. (The most accomplished Portuguese player in recent history is Nuno Marques, who reached No. 86 in the ATP rankings in 1995.) She was front-page news in Portugal after she beat Shaughnessy, according to journalist Manuel Perez, who writes for two different tennis magazines there.

Perez came to Key Biscayne partly to follow Larcher de Brito, along with another talented Bollettieri pupil and IMG client from Portugal, Gastao Elias, who competed in the Luxilon Cup here.

Although neighboring Spain has long been a tennis powerhouse, Perez said the federation there has rejected assistance and hasn't been assertive in promoting the game at the grassroots level. "She had to come to the States, because no one in Portugal would help her," he said of Larcher de Brito. "It's a soccer country."

Larcher de Brito has only been home once since she and her family emigrated here. She admits to a little of what the Portuguese call "saudade," or homesickness, for her friends and extended family. She wears a medal around her neck with an image of the Virgin Mary and a cross, given to her by her paternal grandmother. "I never take it off," she said.

She grew up following her two older brothers onto clay courts in Lisbon, toting a bag bigger than she was, and attended the Estoril Open combined men's and women's tournament there each May. (Family members, through IMG agent Ben Crandell, declined to be interviewed.) Gabriel Jaramillo, a coach at Bollettieri's academy, first spotted her when he was in Portugal conducting clinics.

Bollettieri invited her to Florida for a visit and eventually offered her a full scholarship. Extended family members are supporting her parents and brothers financially.

At 12, playing in the 16-and-under division, she swept the singles and doubles titles at a major junior tournament in Florida, the Eddie Herr. She finished last year 70th in the junior world rankings -- which include players up to 18 years old -- and is currently No. 61. In February, Larcher de Brito lost her professional debut at a lower-level event in Midland, Mich., but pushed 29-year-old Kristina Brandi, ranked No. 184, to three sets.

Larcher de Brito's plans for this season are still somewhat fluid, but she plans to play some junior clay court events in Europe to try to get into the Junior French Open. Larcher de Brito also was just drafted to play for the Sacramento franchise of World Team Tennis, which plays a monthlong season in midsummer.

The day after her loss to Hantuchova, Larcher de Brito was scheduled to pose for photos in front of vivid magenta and purple flower beds outside the main entrance to the grounds at Crandon Park, where the tournament is played. But a wet weather system that stubbornly swirled in place over the Miami area scotched those plans. Crandell called an audible and decided the session would be done at center court.

At the appointed time, Larcher de Brito walked out onto the court where she'd lost the night before, shielded by a huge green-and-white umbrella. She swayed and smiled in the blustery wind.

Her mane of brown hair, carefully straightened for the occasion, had reverted to its usual curliness. She made the best of it in true go-on-with-the-show fashion, even after the rain started coming down so hard that the photographers retreated into the tunnel to shoot. Mission accomplished, Larcher de Brito departed by the same passage she'd taken the previous evening.

There were no tears after the Hantuchova match. Instead, Larcher de Brito slung her bag over her shoulder and paused at the entrance to the tunnel, waved once, twirled a bit, then waved again. It was a poised display by someone who knows she won't be back for a while but who obviously thinks the skill might come in handy in the not-too-distant future.

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