It happens every December, like clockwork. Radio stations switch to Christmas carols. Snowbirds descend on sunny South Florida. And a ponytailed pint-sized American tennis player at the Jr. Orange Bowl Tournament is declared “the next Jennifer Capriati.”
This year, one of the prodigies drawing spectators at the Biltmore Tennis Center was 9-year-old Gabby Price, who lives in Montebello, N.Y., and has been training part-time at Rick Macci’s Academy in Boca Raton since she was 4.
Price is 4-3 and weighs 65 pounds, but she already hit with former world No. 1 Martina Hingis in front of a New York audience of 2,500 that included Serena Williams and John McEnroe.
HEAD, the tennis racket manufacturer, posted on Twitter in August that Price is its youngest-sponsored athlete. And a nine-minute video feature called “Unstoppable 9-Yr-Old Tennis Prodigy!” can be found on YouTube. Macci, who coached Capriati, says on the video that Price reminds him of Capriati.
Price qualified for the 12-Under main draw this week and found out what most phenoms find out in a tournament that features hundreds of the best players from 75 countries. She found out, in her words, that “The girls are really good here. I have to work harder.”
Price lost her third-round match 6-1, 6-1 on Wednesday to Anri Nagata of Japan, a taller, more physical player. Price chased every ball, but it wasn’t enough. She took the loss hard, questioning why a reporter wanted to talk to her.
“Why are you writing things down? I played bad,” she said. “You should write about me when I win.” She went on to say that she plans to win next year’s tournament at age 10, “like Jennifer Capriati did.”
Capriati, Steffi Graf, Mary Joe Fernandez and Monica Seles are among the former Jr. Orange Bowl 12s champions.
Price’s father, Marc, a former tennis player at Penn State, said: “I tell her the world’s a big place. You can never relax. To make it you have to train harder than anyone. Failure breeds greatness, and she’ll learn from this.”
He insists his daughter’s ambition comes from within. “It’s in her more so than me. She wants to be famous,” he said. “She said she wants to be bigger than Hannah Montana. As far as pressure, it’s good for her. She can handle it. She says, ‘Bring it on.’”
Among the American girls who advanced Wednesday were Nicole Conrad, who beat Kristina Novak 6-4, 6-1; Rachel Lim, who beat Varvera Gracheva 6-2, 7-5; and Ellie Douglas, winner of last month’s Eddie Herr tournament, who defeated Bianca Andreesuk 6-1, 6-4.
The tournament runs through Sunday.