High school tennis players, even the best ones, rarely look imposing when you see them off the court. You see a tall kid, you think basketball. You see a kid with height, weight, and little body fat, and you think football.
So it is with Sadie Hammond of Belgrade, Maine. You wouldn’t go looking for tennis players in Belgrade anyway, and if you saw her walking down the street, you’d probably have no indication that she’s one of the best tennis players in New England, and her goal is to be one of the best in the world.
But that’s the thing about Sadie: You rarely have the chance to catch her walking down the street. While other 16-year-olds are in public schools, Sadie takes classes online so she’ll have more time to train. While other 16-year-olds are on Twitter, Sadie is developing a serve that was clocked at over 100 miles per hour when she was 15.
"I'm just trying to build my weapons, and make them bigger," Sadie said.
In October, Sadie played Petra Rampre, a 33-year-old pro who was ranked 208th nationally and has won eight ITF singles titles. Rampre won 6-1, 6-3. Sadie felt the match was more competitive than that.
“It was my first main draw in any pro circuit tournament,” Sadie said. “I was kind of nervous (the first set). The second set was a lot closer than 6-3. I had a lot of game points.”
In the latest United States Tennis Association singles ratings, Hammond is ranked 14th in New England among girls 18 and under, and 15th among girls 16 and under, (however, she doesn’t play in 16U tournaments, which lowers her rating points and causes her to be ranked lower in that class). Falmouth’s Meghan Kelley is the only other player from Maine in the Top 20 on either list.
Those rankings are actually on the low side for Hammond. In July, she was second in New England among all girls singles players 18-and-under. Some of her recent tournaments don’t count toward those point totals, and she had tendinitis in her wrist over the summer, which has affected her place in the standings.
“I played a lot of matches in May, and I think it was just overuse,” Sadie said. “I was out for the whole summer. I iced it after every time I hit to keep it from coming back, but it’s fine now.
“Mentally, it was so hard. I was still able to play – I just couldn’t hit my backhand. My first few matches back were a struggle, just getting back into match mode.”
On the tennisrecruiting.net website, Sadie is ranked first in Maine, fourth in New England, and 46th in the United States among potential college recruits. She’s a junior at Laurel Springs Prep School, and online school based out of California. That schooling option allows her to adhere to a seven-day-a-week schedule in which she plays tennis and works out both in the morning and the afternoon. By this fall, she hopes to make the decision on whether to attend college, or turn pro.
Colleges have already shown a lot of interest – in Florida recently, the coach from Tennessee watched her throughout the tournament and e-mailed her afterward to sell her on taking an unofficial visit to Knoxville – but Sadie is also fully aware that she is lucky enough not to need a scholarship. Her great-grandparents founded Hammond Lumber, a business that still thrives. (Family lore is that Sadie’s great-grandmother loaned her husband the $50 he needed to start the business.) Sadie has a personal coach, a personal trainer, and the opportunity to go play where the top players are.
“I totally appreciate it, completely,” she said. “There’s so much effort going into this from everyone.”
Ironically, Sadie’s parents, Mike and Amy Hammond, had no tennis background. They both graduated from Messalonskee – where Sadie would go if she attended public school – and Mike said the school didn’t even have a tennis team at the time. Mike played basketball and baseball, and Amy played basketball and field hockey.
"We both had kind of envisioned that Sadie would be a field hockey player or a basketball player like her mother," Mike said. "But she never really caught on to those sports. It was a very easy decision. She never really fell in line with the typical sports."
The long drives and flights to tournaments do put a dent in Sadie’s traveling fan base. Sadie’s friends have nothing to compare her to, so they can’t fully grasp what she does. If she won the state singles tournament – and Don Atkinson, one of the tournament directors, said she’d win so easily that it’s likely no other player would win even a single game against her – her friends would be able to take about an hour drive and watch her dominate in Lewiston.
But since Sadie’s itinerary for tournaments this fall and winter includes tournaments in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and the Bahamas, her friends can’t see her do her thing, and consequently have no idea how good she is or how hard she’s working to get better.
"They think I just go out on the court and hit for a few minutes," Sadie said, laughing.
So how good is she?
College recruiters had the chance to contact her for the first time on Sept. 1. That day, Hammond’s inbox was loaded with e-mails from big-name schools, including some in the Ivy League.
"I don't think anyone should ever be as arrogant as to try to predict athletes' futures," said David Zeutas-Broer, the Player Development Manager with USTA New England. "It's guesswork. But I think she has a really good upside with her tennis future. She could be a high, high D-I level, for sure, with what she has already."
Zeutas-Broer describes Hammond as “an aggressive base-liner.” With her big serve, Hammond loves to hit the ball hard and go for points. This also helps her when playing doubles.
"The biggest difference for doubles is that my aggressive style really suits the game," Sadie said. "If you find someone who has the same game as you, it's like magic."
"She has a very good serve for her size," Zeutas-Broer said. "She's athletic, but she's slight. She has very sort of natural movement, so she creates power bigger than her size."
Sadie already owns a victory over Andie Daniell of Georgia, who is ranked 58th nationally among girls 18-and-under in the USTA singles rankings.
Of course, Sadie can attend college for a year or two and then decide to turn pro. Mike believes that the college experience makes a person more well-rounded, but he and Amy shrug when asked which path they prefer for Sadie, as casually as though they’re being asked by friends where they’d like to go to dinner that night.
"I don't care one way or the other, just facilitate her aspirations either way," Mike said.
Zeutas-Broer believes whether a player can turn pro and succeed at that level depends on many factors you can’t know unless you get inside the player’s head and own a crystal ball to boot. Will the player maintain his or her desire? Will the player’s body hold up?
"One of the biggest jumps players make from juniors to pros is their ability to problem-solve on the court," Zeutas-Broer said. "You can tell that's an area she's going to grow into. The players who do the best at that, they're going to go the furthest, because it's all about problem-solving."
As far as her attitude, Zeutas-Broer has what appears to be the prevailing opinion about Sadie: “She's a great kid, and she's a real credit to junior tennis in New England.”
By all accounts, Sadie works as hard as anyone. And as good as she is, there’s room to get much, much better.
"I think a big part of it is, you have to be really motivated," Sadie said. "You have to really want it. You just have to stick to it, I think, and hopefully, it will all work out."