LOS ANGELES — During a recent practice, Claire Liu sent an easy forehand sailing to the fence beyond the baseline and pressed a palm to her forehead.
“Smile, you’re having fun,” said Chris Tontz, Liu’s coach.
“Am I?” she said with a laugh.
She should be. Liu, 17, is currently the top-ranked junior in the world and the No. 292 player in WTA rankings. In the last three months, Liu has won two titles on the Pro Circuit, a level below the WTA Tour, and become the first American to win the Wimbledon girls’ title since Chanda Rubin in 1992. She made her main-draw debut in a WTA tournament this month at the Bank of the West Classic, where she led Nicole Gibbs, 5-2, in the third set before fading and losing in a tiebreaker in the first round.
Liu first garnered attention in 2015 when she won a Pro Circuit title in Orlando, Fla., at 14, becoming the youngest woman to win a pro tournament since Anna Kournikova in 1996. Three months later, after turning 15, she reached the final round of qualifying at the United States Open.
Despite the pressure that comes with such results, Liu is pushing back against the typical narrative of a rising teenage tennis player. Now, she has reached a crucial point in her development, choosing between going to college and turning pro.
Liu is part of a large group of promising American women, most of whom have already turned pro. CiCi Bellis, 18, is in the top 40. Kayla Day, 17, is in the top 150. Amanda Anisimova, 15, played her first main-draw match of a Grand Slam event at this year’s French Open.
Liu has never lost to Anisimova, and she beat Day en route to a title in Naples, Fla., three months ago. But unlike her teenage counterparts, Liu, with a year of school left, has kept college in her sights.
Liu’s story differs in many ways from her peers’.
Unlike a majority of top juniors, Liu has never attended a tennis academy and did not leave home to pursue the sport. She grew up in Thousand Oaks, Calif., and spent the last eight years training at the United States Tennis Association site in Carson, 51 miles away. Liu’s mother, Wen, drives her to and from practice every day.
She has no parent-coach and does not come from a tennis background. Her parents, both Chinese immigrants, are chemists. She has no agent, but plenty of offers. And she has no entourage at tournaments; only Tontz, who is on the U.S.T.A.’s coaching staff, accompanies her.
“I try to keep everything light right now, and Chris really helps with that.” Liu said.
Her parents took an interest in tennis after attending a tournament at U.C.L.A. and the joint ATP-WTA event in Indian Wells, Calif.
“We had never seen tennis courts before coming to the States,” Wen Liu said.
She and her husband, Longbin, joined a recreational league and took lessons. Their daughter would use their rackets and knock balls around the living room.
Mike Gennette gave Liu her first lessons when she was 5. “You could kind of just tell she was special,” he said.
Gennette, the coach of California Lutheran University’s men’s tennis program, immediately noticed that Liu could put topspin on the ball. When Liu was 8, he said, she had great footwork and court awareness.
“She was able to hit an on-the-rise drive, on the run, with a change of direction,” Gennette said. “And she could do it consistently. She was just better than the rest, with more skills to fall back on.”
In her earliest tournaments, Liu went deep into regional and national draws. Around this time, many young hopefuls would have moved to South Florida, where many Grand Slam champions have started their journeys. But Liu stayed home.
“I never felt pressure to follow everyone else,” Liu said. “My coaches and parents were really supportive in letting me make my own decisions, and not pressuring anything.”
Breaking the mold motivated Liu to practice seven days a week.
“I told her she had to take a day off, but she just wouldn’t do it,” Gennette said.
She also read “A Champion’s Mind” by Pete Sampras; “Open” by Andre Agassi; “Beyond Center Court” by Tracy Austin; “Holding Serve” by Michael Chang; and “Rafa” by Rafael Nadal. Perhaps that was why Martin Blackman, general manager of player development for the U.S.T.A., said Liu “has one of the highest tennis I.Q.s of any young player on court right now.”
The Liu family home is far from a shrine to tennis. There are hardly any trophies in sight, and the only noticeable tennis balls are used by the family dog, a German shepherd named Buddy.
“My house is like an escape, where I don’t have to think about tennis,” Liu said. “We don’t talk about tennis.”
They don’t need to. They know Liu’s ultimate goals: to win Grand Slam titles and be No. 1.
“She’s fearless,” Tontz said. “She has a big serve despite being slightly shorter than the rest. She wants to come forward. She wants to take balls out of the air, and she’s got great touch.”
Despite being only 5 feet 6 inches, Liu hits a heavy ball supplemented by quick movement and a versatile two-handed backhand.
“Over all, she knows how to play the percentages, and knows how to manage the court and score,” Blackman said. “It’s not often we see a player her age with that complete of a game.”
For Liu, the decision whether to turn pro hangs on how she feels about her level of play on the Pro Circuit and what she wants of her life in the long run.
“My family, we value education, and I think I’d get a lot from college,” she said. “But now that I’m doing better again, going pro is a bigger option.”
Liu could have turned pro at 15 after her successful 2015, but she fell into a slump last year.
“I was playing terrible,” Liu said. “I thought for sure I was going to college.”
But in 2017, Liu has risen to the top 300 from 674th. She is the fourth youngest player in the top 300, and going pro is suddenly relevant again.
The flow of young players to college and the pro tour is cyclical, Blackman said, and now more young women are choosing to turn pro, even though the average age of the top 100 women is 25.5.
“There’s not many job openings in the top 100 every year, so college tennis is becoming more competitive,” Blackman said. “And a lot of coaches are giving the flexibility to play professional tournaments, so it’s no longer an either-or proposition.”
Liu’s mother acknowledged that she does not know much about the pro tour, so “I read and talk to people.”
She and her husband have become friends with Carl Chang, the brother and the former coach of Michael Chang. They go to him for insights on the pro lifestyle.
“He said you don’t really make a good career even if you get to the top 50,” Wen Liu said. “If you’re around 50, it’s like a journeyman, you travel and break even. It’s a tough job, and it can be lonely.”
The United States Open, which begins in late August, will be Liu’s moment of reckoning. Around that time, she could break into the top 200, which Blackman sees as the best indicator of whether a junior woman should turn pro.
Liu had a chance to earn a spot in the main draw of the Open at the U.S.T.A. National Hard Court Championships in San Diego last week. In the quarterfinals, Liu lost to the No. 2 junior, Whitney Osuigwe, 15, who trains at the IMG Academy in Florida and has committed to being a professional.
Liu got a wild card into the Open qualifying draw and probably will play the junior tournament if she misses out on the main draw.
There is still much to juggle. With one more year of school — she has been taking online classes since ninth grade — Liu will continue training from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. in Carson and traveling biweekly for tournaments.
“I can feel the expectation to win growing,” she said. “But I remind myself that it’s all about development. And there’s no rush. I’m just trying to keep tennis fun.”
Published at Tue, 15 Aug 2017 15:43:56 +0000