The score is love

It's usually around 3 or 4 a.m., as she is serving yet another cocktail, when single mother Paula Liverpool asks herself why she's bartending at a strip club till 5 in the morning when she must get up at 8 for her day job.

And then her mind turns to Sachia Vickery, her 12-year-old daughter -- tucked away in bed in Miramar in her grandmother's care, resting her chiseled body for another day of elite tennis training.

Sachia, the nation's No. 1-ranked junior player in the 12-and-under division, is already winning tournaments against 14-year-olds. And her mother, an immigrant from Guyana, will do anything to make sure her only daughter can compete "with the girls who carry Louis Vuitton luggage to tournaments."

Nadine Duval understands completely. She left behind her physician husband and a neonatology practice in Haiti to move to South Florida to give her children a better life. Among them is daughter Victoria, 11, No. 3 in the 12-and-unders, who could end up across the net from Sachia this weekend at the Florida State Closed championship in Daytona Beach.

Theirs are parallel stories of parents who haven't pushed their kids into competitive sports but who've sacrificed plenty to get them there.

Liverpool spends roughly $3,500 a month on Sachia's tennis, mostly on travel and private coaching at the Patrick McEnroe Tennis Academy on Grove Isle. Sometimes, when she can't get away from work, she sends her daughter and mother to tournaments on a Greyhound bus.

By day, she is an administrator for Kaplan University. Four nights a week, when she bartends at Club Rolexx in North Miami, she gets by on three hours' sleep.

"Sachia's tennis is not a fad, " Liverpool says. "She is very motivated and talented, and I want to be able to make her dream come true."


Maurice Duval, the young player's father, maintains his obstetrics practice in Haiti so Nadine can spend her day home-schooling Victoria and driving her from their Delray Beach home to Key Biscayne to train at the USTA High Performance Training Center, where she earned a scholarship.

She also looks after sons Leo, who plays tennis at Spanish River High School in Boca Raton, and Cedric, who plays at Lynn University. Victoria talks to her father by phone every night and sees him every three months.

"It's frustrating for me to have given up my practice, but I'm happy as a Mom, " Duval says. "I feel I have a responsibility to my children, and sometimes things are good for them, even if they're not good for you."

Both girls say they were inspired by Venus and Serena Williams.

"Venus and Serena gave little black girls everywhere somebody to look up to, " said Liverpool. "They see there's somebody who looks like them winning tennis tournaments all over the world, someone with a similar background, somebody not rich, and it motivates these girls to follow their dreams."

Unlike young tennis players pushed into the sport by parents, Sachia and Victoria picked it up entirely on their own. Sachia's interest in tennis was a new twist in an already-athletic family: Her mother had been a national-class sprinter in Guyana; her father, Rawle Vickery, who is divorced from her mother and lives in Ohio, was a soccer player.

When she was 5, Sachia asked her grandma for a racket at the dollar store. She started hitting balls against a wall at the house for hours at a time, never getting bored.

"She'd say, 'I'm going to be the next Serena, ' and I thought it was a fad that would go away, " Paula Liverpool said. "But once I took her to Pembroke Lakes Tennis Club for lessons, she took off -- and all I can do is go along for the ride."

Duval's mother was a ballerina for a major troupe, and her grandfather was a saxophonist. Victoria took ballet as a little girl but liked tennis better, partly because she wanted to be more like her brothers. She started training at the Rick Macci Academy in Deerfield Beach and got connected with the USTA when former tour pro and USTA coach Lori McNeil saw her play in a tournament.

Barely five-foot-one with a high-pitched voice, Victoria is often teased by bigger, older players. "When I beat them, they stop making fun of me, " she says.

"I'm a smart player, and a fighter, like Serena and [Israeli player] Shahar Peer, " she says. And her dreams are bold: "I want to be No. 1 in the world by age 16."


Sachia, even with her mouthful of braces, also is mature beyond her years. "I love tennis because every time I hit that ball across the net it makes me feel like I can do anything, be anyone I want to be, " she says. "There is nothing I love more than tennis, but I do love reading, too. I love Harry Potter books."

Liverpool believes her daughter's hunger to excel stems partly from their financial struggles, and she reinforces the lesson. When they flew standby to Paris because that's what they could afford, Liverpool told her daughter she'd have to work twice as hard so one day she'd be sitting in first class.

Patrick McEnroe sees the potential: "Sachia is a great kid, spunky, very fit, clean baseline game, and she really knows how to play the court, " he says.

Her coach, former tour pro Laurence Tieleman, is equally impressed: "What's remarkable about Sachia is not so much how she strikes the ball, because a lot of girls can do that, but it's how she understands the game so well."

Victoria's coach, Jai Dilouie, is equally effusive about his star. "Other kids have good strokes but don't compete well, " he said. "Vicki is ultra competitive, plays smart shots, and knows how to win."

Both girls are well aware of what their mothers have done for them.

Victoria says she "feels bad" about her mother's sacrifice and vows to make her proud.

Sachia says her mother "inspires me to fight. She worked so hard for me to be here, I can't lose."

Liverpool hated moonlighting from the very first night. "But the next week was Memorial Day, and I made $2,500 in tips over three days, " she says. "I decided right then that I'd stick with it, because Sachia needs me to."

Says Sachia: "When I win, she wins, too."