Queens of the CourtWith Steadfast Discipline and Determination – Not to Mention Powerful Serves and Backhands – These Emerald Coast Tennis Stars Rule Their Sport
By Christy Kearney
Photography by Scott Holstein
Grace, poise, strength, courage, dedication and intelligence – all are qualities of a queen, as well as a true account of the young female tennis players who rule the Emerald Coast’s courts.
While South Florida and California are well known for cultivating junior competitors and future tennis champs, Northwest Florida is home to some tennis jewels of its own. And the region is making a stronger-than-ever impact on girls’ junior tennis across the state, country and even the world.
The active lives of six Emerald Coast girls, described here, show just what it takes to reign supreme in the highly competitive world of junior tennis. Daily training and drills, ongoing fitness regimens and closely monitored nutrition plans tell only part of the story; they also must contend with intense travel schedules, homework on the road and finding the funds to finance a budding tennis career. Yet through it all, these six flourishing athletes “just do it” and, through their perseverance, represent the crème de la crème of young competitors.
Age Began Playing Tennis: 2
Favorite Shot: Serve
Favorite Professional Player: Jelena Jankovic
• International Tennis Federation (ITF) Girls’ 18 & Under
• Limited Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) professional tournaments
No. 81 of nearly 2,000 in ITF Juniors
• 2008 Chile Junior ITF Doubles champion
• 2007 Tunisian Junior ITF champion
• 2007 Egyptian Junior ITF champion
• 2007 Tunisian Junior ITF Doubles champion
• U.S. National Junior Clay Court champion
As the daughter of two Destin tennis professionals, Alexa Guarachi has been involved in tennis on the Emerald Coast her entire life. The 17-year-old picked up her first racquet as an infant and admits that she even learned how to walk on the tennis court.
With 10 years of competition under her belt, Alexa is leading the pack and proving that you don’t have to live in a traditional tennis region to be successful in the sport.
Her outgoing personality and boundless energy, along with great discipline and a passion for competition, have helped pave the way for her success.
Alexa thrives off of the competition, saying, “I am a very competitive person, and that’s definitely my favorite part about (tennis).”
In 2007, she was the sixth-highest-ranked American in the world junior rankings and participated in two Grand Slam events – the 2007 U.S. Open Juniors Championship in New York and the 2008 Australian Junior Championship in Melbourne. In addition to winning two junior ITF championships in 2007, she participated in six professional tournaments, including the $200,000 WTA Cachantun Cup in Vina del Mar, Chile; a $75,000 USTA Pro Circuit event in Albuquerque, N.M.; and a $50,000 USTA Pro Circuit event in Troy, Ala.
As an added bonus to the thrill of international play, Alexa treasures the chance to travel the globe. She has been from one corner to the other, with stops including South Korea, Egypt and Chile.
The success has been sweet, and Alexa now is facing a defining year as she begins weighing her options for a professional tennis career. Like most players at her level, Alexa would like to pursue a professional career, but she is going to take it one step at a time.
“I think it mostly depends how this next year goes for me,” she says. “I am definitely looking at colleges to attend as well, and am keeping all of my options open.”
As the competition heats up, so does Alexa’s schedule. She travels more than 35 weeks out of the year, which she confesses is a lot. With a schedule more demanding than most adults’, Alexa embraces her busy life.
“You have to be able to balance so much – your social life, your family, your schoolwork, your fitness, your mental side of the game and, of course, the tennis part,” she says.
With all she has to juggle, Alexa makes a point to do the things she loves – hang out with friends, go to the movies, hit the beach and – oh, yes – play some tennis.
Hometown: Miramar Beach
Age Began Playing Tennis: 9
Favorite Shot: Forehand
Favorite Professional Player: Rafael Nadal
United States Tennis Association (USTA) Girls’ 14 Singles
No. 124 of 1,258 in Florida
• Quarterfinalist, Seminole County Fall Sectional
• Quarterfinalist, North Florida Designated
• Seascape Super Series Girls’ 14 Singles champion
• Quarterfinalist, Cambier Park April Designated
• Finalist, Seminole County Sunshine Super Series Girls’ 14 Singles
An athlete since the age of 4, Brooke Durden, 14, has successfully competed in softball and golf, but she set her sights on tennis at the age of 9 because she “wanted a little more action.”
She began playing softball at 4 years old and helped lead her team to three World Series titles. After six years of playing numerous positions in the clay, Brooke decided she wanted to pursue an individual sport. With innate strength and a long and lean stature, the young athlete hit the golf course and even won a junior long-drive competition during her short-lived golf career. Still, she craved more and decided to head back to a different kind of clay to find her true calling in the world of sports.
Armed with focus, discipline and a fiercely competitive spirit, Brooke began taking tennis lessons while living in Atlanta. During a family vacation at Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort, the young ace took a lesson with pros Chris Petty and Brett Beattie at the Sandestin Tennis Center.
“I just fell in love with them,” she says.
Since her family moved to Destin in 2006, Brooke has established herself as one of the up-and-coming stars on the Emerald Coast and is working her way up the Florida charts.
“In nine months, I went from 190 to 45 in my rankings,” she says of her quick attack on the Florida field.
Brooke’s drive and focus is balanced with a soft, sincere love for her family and friends, not to mention an appreciation for education. As the daughter of a history teacher, Brooke comes by her affinity for learning naturally. She loves to read and watch movies and shares that her favorite genre is war stories.
Her study and appreciation of great battles is not lost on the tennis court. Brooke is dedicated to her skill and works tirelessly to be the best she can be. And while winning is the goal, she “likes the competition, working really hard to get in shape and then seeing it pay off when you win or even when you lose, but you’ve played a great match.”
Brooke possesses a quiet maturity beyond her years and has remained grounded despite her quick and successful dive into the tennis environment. She has her eyes on a professional career but also would like to play at a school such as Stanford University.
“They’ve got a great tennis team, but they’re great with academics, too,” she says.
While Brooke confesses that the strenuous demands of her schedule have made her grow up faster than other kids her age, she wouldn’t change a thing because “life is good.”
Age Began Playing Tennis: 4
Favorite Shot: Serve and forehand
Favorite Professional Player: Ana Ivanovic
USTA Girls’ 18 Singles, Limited WTA professional tournaments
• No. 31 of 1,258 in Florida and No. 60 of 1,682 in nation (Girls’ 14)
• No. 172 of 803 in Florida and No. 501 of 1,842 in nation (Girls’ 18)
• United States Junior Fed Cup winning team member
• 2006 Southern Open Girls’ 14 Singles champion
• Quarterfinalist, Girls’ 18 Singles 2007 Gator Bowl
For Erin Stephens, 15, tennis is a family affair. She began playing the sport while watching her mom teach lessons and her older brother play competitively. At 4 years old, Erin decided she wanted her share of the fun, and now she is one of the hottest juniors in Florida.
While the junior tennis circuit can be a grueling experience, Erin and her mother, who serves double duty as her coach, strive to keep their focus on what they consider the most important thing in life – family. Even on the court, the mother-daughter team keeps it light with an exchange of “Have fun and I love you” before every match.
A favorite saying in the Stephens camp is “Family keeps you grounded and rounded.” Erin believes that having fun and keeping priorities straight is the key to success, and her philosophy has proven to be true.
The thriving junior entered the Florida circuit and quickly made an impression in her Girls’ 12, 14 and 16 Singles matches. Now, at 15, she is competing nationally in the USTA Girls’ 18 Singles division. One of the high points of her already remarkable career was being chosen to represent the United States in the Junior Fed Cup in Melbourne, Australia – a competition Erin helped the American team win. Then, in 2007, she competed in her first three professional tournaments.
“It was nerve-wracking,” Erin says. “I was actually surprised how well I did. My mental game was on; it was pretty exciting.”
Erin makes the best of every situation thrown her way, tackling every challenge and obstacle as an opportunity to learn, better herself and improve her game.
So how does someone so young deal with the pressure? Erin says it can be challenging but sticking to a schedule and having fun with tennis is how she stays on top of her game.
“I think I’ve had pressure for a long time, so I’m kind of use to it now,” she says. “I don’t let it bother me too much.”
Although she has her mom by her side, Erin says the hardest part of traveling and competing is being away from her family. In 2007, the young sensation spent six months in Bradenton while attending the prestigious Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy. While she says she wouldn’t trade the experience, Erin made the decision to come home and reconnect with family and friends.
“It comes down to credibility on the court and off the court,” says Erin, who proves daily that she is the real deal in all aspects of her life.
Age Began Playing Tennis: 10
Favorite Shot: Backhand
Favorite Professional Player: Justine Henin
USTA Girls’ 16 Singles
• No. 69 of 925 in Florida
• No. 242 of 1,869 in nation
• Two-time National Open Doubles finalist
• Memphis Southern Indoor champion
• Three-time quarterfinalist, National Open
• No. 6 in Florida Closed Girls’ 14 Singles
• No. 3 in Florida Closed Girls’ 14 Doubles
• Two-time county champion with Destin Middle School
Whether it is her tennis game, her clothes or her taste in books, one thing is for sure: 16-year-old Alexandra Alford does everything with style.
Like many competitive junior players, Alexandra considers the friendships she has made through tennis the most rewarding part of the game – and the opportunity to travel around the country is the cherry on top.
“This year I’ve been to California and I’ve been to New York,” says Alexandra, recalling her favorite stops along the competitive junior circuit. “I’ve traveled all over the country the last couple of years.”
When asked about the most challenging part of playing at a high-performance level, Alexandra says she thinks it’s all really fun, but that “you have to be disciplined and have a good work ethic.”
Alexandra’s own hard work and discipline have been rewarded with success in her promising tennis career. She recently made it to the finals and quarterfinals of a number of National Opens, and as a Destin Middle School student she won the county championship two years in a row, winning every game and every match. While the demand of her schedule has kept her from playing high school tennis the past few years, she hopes to join the school team next year.
The level-headed athlete has no qualms about the future she wants for herself.
“I know a lot of people are trying to go pro,” Alexandra says. “It’s extremely hard to make money playing professional tennis, and unless you are in the Top 20 you don’t really make any money at all.”
Wise beyond her years, Alexandra would like to use tennis to secure her college education and draw on her proven work ethic to become a corporate lawyer.
In everything she does, Alexandra tries to “keep it normal,” which is a tall order when traveling across the nation for tennis tournaments. She does what she can by attending classes at South Walton High School and making a point to stay in touch with friends while on the road.
Well-rounded and well-read, Alexandra is quick to share her favorite books, such as “The Clique” series and “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.” She appreciates the classics, too, excited about an upcoming class assignment to read “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
Alexandra acknowledges that keeping her grades up is part of the deal with her parents, saying that if she doesn’t do well in school, tennis would be the first thing to go. When not focusing on tennis and keeping up her 3.96 grade point average, she likes to be outside riding her bike or enjoying the area’s beautiful beaches.
Carla and Bianca Biglione
Age Began Playing Tennis: 6
Favorite Shot: Volley and backhand
Favorite Professional Player: Andy Roddick
USTA Girls’ 12 and Girls’ 14 Singles
• No. 9 of 361 in Florida (Girls’ 10)
• No. 123 of 819 in Florida (Girls’ 12)
• Alabama state champion in 2007
• Bluewater Bay Junior Super Series Girls’ 14 Doubles champion
• Bluewater Bay Junior Super Series Girls’ 12 Singles champion
• Tim Smith Acura Super Series Girls’ 14 Singles champion
Age Began Playing Tennis: 8
Favorite Shot: Forehand
Favorite Professional Player: Justine Henin
USTA Girls’ 14 Singles
No. 227 of 1,258 in Florida
• Bluewater Bay Junior Super Series Girls’ 14 Doubles champion
• Carrington Super Series Girls’ 14 Singles champion
• Oktoberfest Super Series Girls’ 14 champion
• Cayo Grande Hard Court Girls’ 12 and 14 Singles champion
Sisters Carla and Bianca Biglione are proof that good things come in small but swift packages. What started as a summer pastime has evolved into a full-time commitment for the girls, who play as singles but also join forces for doubles play.
“The best thing is that she’s my sister,” says 13-year-old Bianca. “I can get really mad and yell at her, and she’ll forgive me.”
Carla, 11, agrees with a knowing giggle. The sisters are good friends and training partners, which is evident by their strong presence on the doubles court. While they admit that they still are learning the strategy of doubles, they enjoy spending time with each other on the court and are getting better day by day.
Bianca, a seventh-grader at Meigs Middle School, leads the school’s tennis team with her sister at her side. She is out to prove, just like her favorite player, Justine Henin, that size doesn’t matter. The spirited student uses her mind for success both on and off the court, declaring her love of math and pride in her work in honors algebra. With hopes of following in her father’s footsteps as a doctor, Bianca already is thinking about taking advantage of her tennis experience to get into a top-rated college.
Carla, who is making her own mark on the USTA junior circuit in Florida, is a petite but powerful fifth-grader who would like to be in the top 400 professional women players someday.
And although she is the younger of this emerging dynamic duo, she certainly holds her own and is gaining recognition at state and regional tournaments.
The accomplished player is a bundle of energy, saying her favorite part of the game is “running the ball down.” Carla began playing tennis at 6 years old, and her game has progressed rapidly. Even at the age of 10, she did not shy away from older, stronger players and has won tournaments at the Girls’ 12 and 14 Singles levels.
The sisters love being on the court and competing, but find great joy in their other hobbies and interests. Bianca, who is the self-professed planner of the two, enjoys reading, arts and crafts, and scrapbooking. She describes Carla as the “whimsical” one – and the younger Biglione doesn’t deny it, pleased with her independent endeavors off of the court, especially painting and drawing sea creatures.
While Bianca and Carla have found success early in their junior careers, they have remained humble and know that the most essential part is having fun, enjoying the experience and, most importantly, enjoying it together.
Pro Tournament is a Sure Win for Community
Fort Walton Beach Tennis Center Inspires Local Players with Pro Women’s Event
As a USTA Pro Circuit Event, the AVT $25,000 Women’s Challenger hosted at the Fort Walton Beach Tennis Center each spring gives local players of all ages and skill levels a taste of the big leagues right here on the Emerald Coast. The weeklong tournament is the first of its kind in the area and since its inception in 2006 has attracted professional women players from nearly 40 different countries as far away as Argentina, Bulgaria, India, Japan and South Africa.
The annual women’s competition is rounded out with tournament festivities such as a kickoff party, a pro-am tournament, a players’ party, player workshops and a kids’ day, with demonstrations including a presentation on how to keep young players interested in tennis.
Along with cultivating the local tennis environment and exposing young players to professional-level competition, the pro-circuit tournament is instrumental in raising awareness about the community benefits of organized activities such as tennis lessons and after-school programs. Boys & Girls Clubs of the Emerald Coast is a key sponsor of the event, and the tournament helps support the organization’s vital after-school programs.
Erik Stenberg, director of the Fort Walton Beach Tennis Center and the Women’s Challenger, sees the tournament as an opportunity to bring the entire community together, build awareness about the positive effect tennis programs can have on a community and economically give back to the Emerald Coast. In fact, according to Stenberg, the tournament feeds $1 million into the local economy.
“It is a challenge to give the next generation a chance to develop discipline and team spirit, to get in shape and to have fun,” he says of the influence tennis can have on young people. “Being part of the Parks and Recreation Department during the crucial time of day youth spend after school hours is an awesome responsibility and privilege."
Get Your Game On
The advantage is all yours with clinics, round-robin tournament play, junior camps and private instruction at the following tennis centers in Okaloosa and Walton counties:
Bluewater Tennis Center
Fort Walton Beach Tennis Center
Hidden Dunes Beach and Tennis Resort
Rosemary Beach Tennis Center
Sandestin Tennis Center
Seascape Golf, Beach & Tennis Resort
Seaside Tennis Club
Shalimar Pointe Golf & Country Club Tennis Center
Tops’l Beach & Racquet Resort