The improbable journey of 19-year-old Yanina Wickmayer - from a young Belgian girl beset with heartache to tennis upstart in today's U.S. Open women's semifinals - began in many respects a decade ago in Tampa.
She was 9 and a newcomer to the sport in Belgium when her mother, Dannielle, died of uterine cancer. But the loss didn't derail her from her dream of playing professional tennis.
The determined grade-schooler, though grieving, went online and began researching tennis academies around the world. She settled on Saddlebrook Resort andthen went about trying to convince her father, Marc, that it was a good idea for him to close his pool-building business and begin a new life on the west coast of Florida.
She made her case well. Father and daughter were soon off to Tampa so Yanina could pursue her goal. She spent 21/2 years at the prestigious tennis program, home to many male and female pros over the years.
"I wanted to get away from home," she said this week after clinching a spot in the Open semifinals. "I loved playing tennis. I was actually only playing for half a year. So I really enjoyed it but just wanted to get away from home and do other stuff, be around other people. That's why we left."
Ranked No. 50 in the world, her challenge today is formidable: No. 9 Caroline Wozniacki, one of the hottest players on the WTA Tour lately with three of her six career wins coming this year. The 19-year-old Dane on Wednesday ended the run of another Open feel-good story, defeating 17-year-old Georgia native Melanie Oudin 6-2, 6-2 in the quarterfinals.
Now comes Wickmayer, a 6-foot, 150-pound relative unknown who turned pro in 2004 and has a 155-71 record and more than $412,000 in earnings.
Suddenly she's in the international spotlight after dispatching Kateryna Bondarenko 7-5, 6-4 in the quarterfinals Wednesday. Not bad for a player who had never advanced beyond the second round of a pro tournament. She shares today's spotlight with countrywoman Kim Clijsters, who faces defending champion Serena Williams in the other semifinal.
Howard Moore, Saddlebrook's longtime director of tennis, recalls when Marc Wickmayer and his daughter arrived. He immediately noticed the youngster's unrelenting desire to master the game she had barely just begun.
"I remember that Yanina really loved tennis, and she was a really athletic young lady," Moore said Thursday. "She told me one day that she was going to become a pro. And look at what she's done."
Saddlebrook's director of coaching, Alvaro Betancur, also recalls her dedication. "She always came to the court ready to give 100 percent," he said. "When I saw her do what she did this week at the U.S. Open, I wasn't surprised. And I'm so happy for her and her father."
Asked this week about the decision to leave Belgium and come to America, Wickmayer stressed that the idea was hers alone.
"Yeah, it was completely mine," she said. "I still don't know how I did it when I was 9. I guess I was older than I thought I was."
That said, she will always be grateful to her father for sacrificing so much to make her aspirations a reality. As the story goes, she told him one week after her mother died that he needed to stay home from work and she would stay home from school so they could talk.
"She sat me down and said we will go to Florida," Marc told the Los Angeles Times. "She will play tennis, and we will live there."
She was so intent on going that she had already contacted a moving company.
"Well, I have to admire him for giving up everything he had," Yanina said. "He gave up his job. He gave up his friends. Yeah, he gave up the house, his cars, and we just left. ... So I respect him for that.
"Everything I have now is a little bit because of him just because he trusted me. He wanted to make me happy no matter what. I guess he always believed in me. He always supported me. Even when I had some tough years - I didn't get through well - but he's always been there next to me and supported me."
But he left his life behind, she stressed, not because he expected her to become a champion. It was an act of love by a father knowing the pain his daughter felt, knowing the pain they shared.
"He just left everything to make me happy," she said.
Information from USOpen.org was used in this report. Dave Scheiber can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8541.