Trying to rise in the ranks of worldwide tennis, dozens of professional athletes, including Carly Gullickson, descend on Boar’s Head

Trying to rise in the ranks of worldwide tennis, dozens of professional athletes, including Carly Gullickson, descend on Boar’s Head

Carly Gullickson, who at 22 is a 12-year veteran of the game, returns a ball during a marathon match against Lindsay Lee-Waters in the semifinals of the Boyd Tinsley Women’s $50,000 Pro Tennis Championships at Boar’s Head last weekend. Lee-Waters ultimately took the trophy, defeating Ekaterina Bychkova in the finals.

Out on the clay courts of the Boar’s Head Inn, a smoky-eyed Indian woman built like a model grunts loudly and slams the ball over the net. Boom! WaaUNGH! Boom! The 90-degree air is thick with pollen, and this player, one of 58 athletes that arrived in town last week for Boyd Tinsley’s invitational tennis tournament, stops between shots and doubles over. She pulls in great, shrieking breaths and lets long ropes of spit drop from her mouth. Then she straightens up, bouncing back and forth on the balls of her feet before letting loose with another monster serve. Boom! WaaaUNGH! On another court, a player is stretched out on the ground under an umbrella. Ice packs on her head, she’s being force-fed liquids. After a while she gets up and goes through the motions of finishing her match. She walks off looking like she just survived an eight-car pile-up.

Such is the scene on Tuesday, April 28, Day Three of the Seventh Annual Boyd Tinsley $50,000 United States Tennis Association Women’s Pro Championships. Carly Gullickson arrives three days in because she didn’t need to play the qualifying rounds. Gullickson, the tournament’s third seed, is tired from her flight in from Alabama, where she made it to the finals of another USTA event. Tall and blonde, she wears a bright pink t-shirt with a smiley face on it. If you saw her on the street, you probably wouldn’t peg her as a world-class athlete. Many professional female tennis players do not present as strong or especially fit. They often look like young girls, with bouncy ponytails, plush dolls hanging from their bags, and dog-eared copies of Twilight. They range in body type from short and stout to stick thin, and they hammer the hell out of the ball. The next day, Gullickson will easily defeat Gabriela Dabrowski, a 17-year-old currently ranked 875 in the world who fought her way through the qualifiers. At the age of 22, which in this universe is considered old, Gullickson is ranked 136. She’s been playing for 12 years and this is the highest singles ranking of her career. As an athlete, Gullickson is on a different plane than people who have to play through the qualifying rounds. Dabrowski is very good at tennis, but watching Gullickson beat her is like watching a neurosurgeon dissect a frog.


For a gallery of photos by Ashley Twiggs relating to this week’s cover story, click here!

From January to November the USTA holds 40 events nationwide, from Surprise, Arizona, to Grapevine, Texas, to Charlottesville. DMB fiddle player Boyd Tinsley, something of a tennis fanatic, has sponsored the Boar’s Head tourney for seven years. His support is praised to no end by all involved, and the tournament is well run and genuinely loved by most of the players, many of whom return year after year and stay with the same host families. The USTA is like a small, traveling circus, with tents and gear, a crew and hangers-on descending upon small towns and bringing with them a very fit and active sense of excitement. The tournament is played on outdoor clay courts, but the clay is really a basalt gravel, very fine and soft and bouncy. In one week, they’ll run through 1,872 new balls, each in a pressurized container that goes “Hisss Pop!” when opened. Early in the morning, the air still cool and the light slanted, the crew rakes the courts and the girls begin to warm up. Ponytails dancing, sweat soaking through sports bras, Boar’s Head staff running out to tell them to cover up the sweaty sports bras. Yes, “girls,” for although a few players are looking at 30, the place is crawling with women born after 1991. You have to be at least 14 to enter a USTA pro event, and if you started playing the game after age 10, you started late. And if you’re not playing tennis at least 30 weeks out of the year, well, you’re obviously not serious about being on the pro tour.

Gullickson returns a shot during her slugfest semifinal match against Lindsay Lee-Waters.

Gullickson knows the world of sport well. Her father was a Major League Baseball pitcher (he was a record-setting rookie with the Montreal Expos and won a pennant with the Yankees) and her mother played tennis for Western Kentucky University. There are five girls and a boy in the family, and all of them are athletic. At 10, Gullickson decided to focus on tennis. Her mother would hit balls to her and younger sister Chelsey, who now plays for the University of Georgia team. When Gullickson was 17, the family moved to Florida and she began to train at the Harold Solomon Tennis Institute, where she developed a style of play that relies on a wider variety of shots over simply hitting hard and fast. The style served her well on the junior tennis circuit. At 16, she was ready to head to college when she qualified for Wimbledon. It seemed like a good time to turn pro.

Gullickson has been in Charlottesville two days, making it to the quarterfinals with an easy win over 269th-ranked Russian Alina Jidkova. She also packed away two wins in doubles earlier in the day, and now Gullickson lounges around the cozy house where she’s staying with a couple of other girls from the tour, her doubles partner Nicole Kriz and Ashley Weinhold. Wearing their sponsor’s regalia (Adidas in Gullickson’s case), they’re snacking before heading to Mellow Mushroom for Thursday night dinner. The girls are not the type to decline food, although their host/surrogate mother seems to overwhelm them with an appetizer course of lime-flavored tortilla chips with guacamole, chocolate/white chocolate chip cookies, and Diet Cokes. Their median age is 23, but between bursts of laughter and text messaging, they complain about being old.

She celebrates fleeting victory in the match against Lee-Waters.

Gullickson says that the USTA favors young players, like 12 to 17, and nurtures them to the exclusion of older, more experienced women. She knows it firsthand. By the age of 17, she had signed a contract with Adidas, played Wimbledon (on center court—“I almost cried!”) and the U.S. Open, and by 2005, the year she turned 19, she was ranked 199th in the world. But when you’re that young, and sponsors and coaches and parents tell you how much potential you have, once you get killed in the first round of a Grand Slam event, potential starts to feel like failure. Things began to slide for Gullickson over the next few years. “I would cry after every one of my matches,” she says. She began to lose more than she won and wondered if skipping school to turn pro had maybe been a bad idea. Eventually she just stopped playing, certain that at age 20 her tennis career was over. Home, without tennis, she “pretty much did nothing.”

There are plenty of stories of girls who cracked under the pressure and burned out like Gullickson did, and, like Gullickson, many of them have returned, continuing to pursue the tennis dream. I meet one Japanese woman who is ranked number 972. As far as I can tell she never wins, and she’s knocked out at Boar’s Head in the first round of the qualifier. She’s 30 and has been playing tennis for 23 years. Looking at her, I can’t escape the question,  Is she chasing a dream or wallowing in delusion?

“Out!” The chair umpire sees all.

‘‘You have to be willing to be by yourself a lot,” Gullickson says of life on the tour. She rarely sees her family and lives out of her suitcase. Gullickson had a boyfriend for a while a few years back, but it didn’t work out. “I guess I’ll just have to do [tennis] for now,” she says, “and deal with [relationships] later.” I overhear another player tell her friend after getting off the phone, “I don’t think I have a boyfriend any more.” I hear rumors of on-tour sexcapades and beer- and vodka-fueled romps through whatever town they happen to be in, but for the most part the focus is tennis. “You definitely get used to it,” Gullickson says of the tennis life, “but at the same time, I hate it.”

Profiling athletes usually means describing what they’ve sacrificed, and Gullickson and her peers dwell on the subject quite a bit. “Tennis players aren’t normal,” is how Kriz puts it. And she’s right, but not because they choose to live on the road. What young athletes sacrifice is the luxury of not having a solid identity, of not knowing who they are at 17 or 22 or even 30. Gullickson knows very well who she is. She is her ranking and her results and her racquet. She is a tennis player. Naturally, Gullickson insists that there’s more to her than just tennis. She likes the color pink, chick flicks and country music. She loves Elton John. She likes to hit the mall. She laughs a lot and seems to be universally liked on the tour. “You have to realize that at the end of the day this is just a sport,” she says. But look around. Everywhere she goes, what is there but tennis?

Sometimes weather, like last week’s bout of extreme heat, is the greatest rival. Carly Gullickson takes a breather during a match against Alina Jidkova.

Players mostly travel on their own, even the 17-year-olds, because it’s simply too expensive to bring along a parent or a coach. Caretaking and supervising roles are filled instead by Missy Malool and Bunny Williams, two USTA officials who travel with the tour and keep it running smoothly. They also handle any and all personal problems that may arise. They have literally sat by hospital beds, and their importance as the stable center in the girls’ lives, or as just a shoulder to lean on, cannot be overestimated. A year on the circuit costs a player about $50,000. A year on the circuit with a coach means double that. First place at the Tinsley tourney earns $7,315. When Gullickson played the $75,000 tournament in Dothan, Alabama, she took home $6,080 for making the finals, and split $4,180 with her winning doubles partner. Rank in the top 350 and you might be able to break even; make it into the top 150 and you’re making money. Someone like 17-year-old Gabriela Dabrowski, who made it through the qualifying rounds before losing in the first round of the main draw to Gullickson, gets $475 for her four days of effort.
Three days in, Gullickson faces 21-year-old Russian Olga Puchkova in the quarterfinals. Puchkova, the subject of a lot of off-court gossip, has spent every non-playing moment sitting in her boyfriend’s lap. Still, she outplays Gullickson in the first few games by hitting huge winners from the baseline and keeping Gullickson from playing the net game that is her specialty, but she starts double faulting her serve, and then just loses it, essentially giving up in the second set. Gullickson, playing with a heavily taped left thigh and right elbow, cruises into the semis.

Many players return to the Tinsley tournament and the same host families year after year. Gullickson chills before heading out to Mellow Mushroom with a couple of other girls on the tour.

“Tennis is all about confidence,” Gullickson says. “My dad used to always tell me, ‘You have to get used to losing.’” At Gullickson’s level, you lose more than you win. “It’s like the minor leagues,” she says.

For the semifinal match in front of a humming, excited crowd, Gullickson faces Lindsay Lee-Waters, a 31-year-old mother of two who has been kicking ass all week. Once ranked in the top 100, Lee-Waters has been playing tennis longer than Gullickson has been alive. She’s hitting hard and fast and just knocked out 19-year-old rising star and top seed Alexa Glatch the day before.

Second game, first set, Gullickson hits a beautiful drop shot, the ball slowing down and floating just over the net so that Lee-Waters has to rush up and stretch forward to try and return it. Which she does, barely, but Gullickson is there to meet it and she hits a little lob up and over Lee-Water’s head for the point. But then Lee-Waters starts smashing the ball, forcing Gullickson to go on the defensive until Lee-Waters hits it by her. The first set goes for an hour until Lee-Waters wins it 7-5. Lee-Waters screams like an angry asthmatic when she hits the ball, and she swings with her entire being, neck muscles cording up like tree roots.

Injury can be a constant companion on the tour. A trainer re-tapes Gullickson’s arm between games during a quarterfinal against Olga Puchkova, whom Gullickson defeated 6-3, 6-0.

In the second set, Gullickson comes out serving harder and approaching the net aggressively. She hits several aces and is hitting winners off of Lee-Water’s second serve. She forces errors and hits lots of slice backhands to win 6-2. Her elbow hurts with every serve, and the trainer runs out to re-tape it even tighter.

In the third set, the score goes back and forth, each player seeming poised to win a point until the other comes roaring back. But Gullickson is getting frustrated. Lee-Waters and Gullickson tie the set at 5-5, then at 6-6. I can hear Gullickson breathing between shots and sweat drips from her forehead. They go into a tiebreak: First person to score seven points by a margin of two wins.

The match is athletic trench warfare, advance and retreat, Nike vs. Adidas to the death. Gullickson has four match points, but fails to hit the winners. The score goes to 11-10, match point for Lee-Waters.

Gullickson serves, bouncing the ball three times and then pausing, rearing back, left hand held out like a Balinese dancer’s, the ball rising up to meet the sky.

Gullickson picked up this move from her father, former Major League pitcher Bill Gullickson. By the age of 10, Carly, who was raised in the world of sport, chose tennis as her game. By 16 she had turned her back on college and was playing a Center Court match at Wimbledon.

Lee-Waters returns, and then Gullickson hits the ball out of bounds. She loses the point and the match and is knocked out of the tournament. Lee-Waters moves on to play Ekaterina Bychkova in the finals on Sunday and wins. Gullickson is more upset than usual after her loss, her face missing its customary smile. She shakes hands and then just disappears into the locker room, crying. But she puts it behind her and she and Kriz go on to win the doubles championship the next day with a beautiful display of teamwork and quick hands. By Monday afternoon Gullickson is back in Florida for two weeks of training and then to Europe for six weeks to warm up for the French Open and Wimbledon. Her goal? To work her way up to being ranked in the top 50 and to make it into the main draw of the U.S. Open. Her performance in the Tinsley Tournament moves her ranking to below 130.

“In all honesty,” Gullickson says, “In seven, eight years I’m going to be done with tennis.” In nearly eight years she will be 30 and will have dedicated 20 years of her life to this sport. “Hopefully, by 30 I’m married and have kids and don’t have to work,” she says and laughs, then thinks for a moment. “If I’m 26 or 27 and still playing in these tournaments and still ranked where I’m at now…” She trails off. “It’s so hard to say though.”

There were times, she knows, when her father hated baseball, and there are times when she feels like she hates tennis, but that’s O.K. Tennis is a job she likes and does well. “You know when you’re ready to stop,” her father told her, and when he was ready, after 14 years in the major leagues, he stopped. And so will she. When it’s over, she says, it’s over.