In the 1980s,while he worked as an instructor at Nick Bollettieri's famed tennis academy inBradenton, Fla., Sekou Bangoura took meticulous mental notes. As he fed ballsto the likes of Andre Agassi, Monica Seles and Venus Williams, Bangoura noticedthe subtleties that separated the future champions from the other kids. But healso studied the hothouse flowers who never bloomed, the thousands of teenageprospects who--beset by injury, bad luck or burnout--never became proplayers.
Years later, whenhis own son, Sekou, known to all as Junior, showed exceptional talent forsmacking a tennis ball and started winning tournaments as early as age six, thefather recalled what he had learned at Bollettieri's. To reduce the intensefocus on tennis, he supplemented his son's training with golf, chess and pianolessons. "It was like cross-training," says the elder Bangoura, anative of Guinea, who speaks with a West African lilt. "If we diverted timeinstead of being on the courts for eight hours, it was going to keep Juniorfresher."
The plan eitherbackfired or succeeded spectacularly. In tennis Junior, now 14, is ranked No. 4nationally in the Boys' 14 age group. He is a prodigiously talented all-courtplayer, blessed with a nimble set of hands and a devastating return game. Onthe clay courts of the Bradenton club that his father founded, Junior practiceswith, and routinely beats, college players. His one glaring weakness is hisserve, but once he fills out and adds some height to his 5'3" frame--andhis size 8 1/2 shoes suggest that day will soon be at hand--it's not hard toenvision him reaching the highest level.
The problem, ifthat's the right word, is that Junior's other interests never lagged farbehind. By eight he had won a national AAU golf tournament for his age group.Though he doesn't play enough tournaments to be ranked nationally, Junior, aseven handicapper, has been invited to compete in the Junior World GolfChampionships in San Diego in July on an exemption from the Tiger WoodsFoundation. (At the 2004 world juniors he shot a pair of 73s.) His drivesroutinely travel 260 yards, and his short game benefits from the same touch heexhibits on the tennis court. Welby Van Horn, a former professional tennisplayer and coach, watched Junior reach the quarterfinals of the Easter Bowlnear Palm Springs, Calif., last month. Van Horn also watched Junior hit ballson a range. "Honestly, I was more impressed with his golf than histennis," says Van Horn. "Every ball was dead straight."
There's more: Asa 10-year-old, Junior won the Florida state chess championship for his agegroup and achieved a national ranking of No. 40. (He now plays mostly on hislaptop.) After a few years of weekly piano lessons, he was able to performflawless versions of Beethoven's F√ºr Elise and Scott Joplin's The Entertainer."He has something innate," his teacher, Nancy Bjorklund, sayswistfully. "If he had more time, he would just be phenomenal."
By three o'clockeach afternoon, as his classmates at the Out-of-Doors Academy saunter out ofschool fiddling with their video iPods, Junior is on the course or court,beginning an elaborate regimen that won't end until he knocks off for bed at9:30. He has no cellphone or Gameboy--"Kids get addicted to that soeasily," says Dad--and can't recall the last television show he saw. Still,Sekou and his wife, Cheryl, an insurance company representative, are determinedto make sure that Junior doesn't completely sacrifice his adolescence. Thisyear as a freshman he played on the school's golf and tennis teams, though itoften meant beating vastly inferior opposition. "Being part of theteam," says Junior, "was what made it fun."
His father knowsthat, inevitably, Junior will pick one pursuit, and the rest will be downgradedfrom passion to diversion. But having witnessed the focus of those kids atBollettieri's who never made it to the big time, Sekou figures the more optionshis son has, the better. "There's an African proverb," he says."When you build a house, build it with more than one door. That way, when alion comes in the front door, you have other ways to get out."
Five Others to Watch
Only four Americans are in the ATP's top 50, and inthe WTA, Russia has as many women in the top 10 (four) as the U.S. does in thetop 51. Here are five prospects who could make a difference.
Ryan Harrison, 14, New Braunfels, Texas
Boys' 16s singles runner-up at the USTA International Spring Championships inApril; trains at John Newcombe Tennis Ranch, where Ryan's dad, Pat, is acoach.
Rhyne Williams, 15, Knoxville, Tenn.
Won the Boys' 14s title at the Junior Orange Bowl in December and recentlyqualified for first pro tournament, a USTA Pro Circuit event in Vero Beach,Fla.
Chase Buchanan, 14, Gahanna, Ohio
Uncanny feel player, he swept the singles and doubles titles at the world'smost prestigious 14-and-under tournament, in Tarbes, France, in 2005, at age13.
Gail Brodsky, 14, Brooklyn
This righthander, who has a complete game, won the singles title last year atTeen Tennis, a major international event in Great Britain.
Asia Muhammad, 15, Henderson, Nev.
A serve-and-volleyer from the Andre Agassi Boys & Girls Club in Las Vegas,she won her fifth junior doubles title at the 2005 Girls' 16s National ClayCourts.
JEFFERY A. SALTER (3)
NET PROFITS Playing golf and chess has helped Junior keep his tennis game sharp.