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On an August afternoon in 2002, Trevor Spracklin walked onto Court 1 of the William H.G. Fitzgerald Tennis Center in Rock Creek Park for the biggest match of his life. It was the first day of competition at the Legg Mason Tennis Classic, the professional-tour event in Washington, and thousands of fans milled around the grounds, including young children standing in line to have their serves clocked on a radar gun, and gray-haired gents queued for the chance to get behind the wheels of the Mercedes-Benzes at the sponsor’s showroom.

At the time, Spracklin had been out of college for just a year, which he’d spent toiling in the lower tiers of professional tennis. Now he had finally made his big-league debut, at a tuneup for the US Open, no less. In the past month alone, Spracklin had won two doubles tournaments and reached the finals of another, shooting his world ranking up to 734. He had also earned wild cards—free passes into the main draw—for both the singles and doubles events of the Legg Mason Classic. “I was on a roll,” says Spracklin. “I felt like this was it. It was my time to break through.”

Spracklin’s opponent was 24-year-old Kevin Kim, ranked No. 200 in the world. The same age as Spracklin but already in his fifth year on the pro tour, Kim had won his spot in the main draw through the qualifying tournament held the week before. “I thought I had a real shot at winning,” says Spracklin. “I was playing the best tennis of my life, and I was playing someone who I figured I could take. I had my foot in the door, and I just needed to make a statement.”

That morning, Spracklin had literally stepped in front of Andre Agassi at the players’-services booth, trying to collect extra tickets for the almost 50 friends and family members who were coming in from all over the country to watch him play. He dropped off the stack of tickets at Will Call, writing down all the names on envelopes. “That was when I realized how many people were coming,” he says. “It was one of the few times I’d ever felt really pressured to perform.”

Spracklin’s match was one of the first to go on, so only a few of his supporters were in their seats when it started. As he warmed up, Spracklin found himself keeping one eye on the ball and the other on the stands. “My mind was all over the place,” he says. “I was basically watching the entrance the whole time with a counter in my head, trying to make sure everyone got in.”

Spracklin played a decent first game, but Kim held serve for a 1-0 lead. Serving for the first time, the 6-foot-3 Spracklin cranked one into the box, and the best Kim could do was float back a weak return to his forehand. Spracklin promptly dumped his shot into the net. Down 0-15, Spracklin served another rocket, which Kim bunted back. Again, Spracklin hit a meatball into the net.

“Each one of those missed forehands loaded an extra hundred pounds on my shoulders,” says Spracklin. “After that, the match just seemed to go faster and faster, and I couldn’t slow it down. I was so nervous. I wasn’t playing like me at all.” Spracklin lost the first set, 6-1, but remained positive. As he sat in his chair during the set break, he reminded himself that Kim was known to be an erratic player capable of losing to lesser opponents. I’m still in it, he told himself.

Then Kim broke Spracklin’s serve early in the second set. “That’s when I started thinking that at least I still had the doubles later that night,” says Spracklin. “I just wanted to use the rest of the match to get the jitters out.”

Down 4-1 in Set 2, Spracklin hit a forehand slightly late and screamed as he felt the outside tendon in his wrist rip out over the bone and then back in. “It was really, really painful,” he says. “I knew right away that I was in trouble.”

Professional tennis is a hierarchical world not unlike the federal pay scale: Distinctions between levels of advancement are clear to everyone, in both status and pay.

Here are tennis’s upper tiers:

Grand slams. The crown jewels of pro tennis—Wimbledon and the French, Australian, and US Opens—where the winners take home $1 million and even first-round losers get paid $16,000. With few exceptions, only full-time pros (average ranking: 113) have access to the slams.

The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) tour. Big-money tournaments in such glitzy locales as Monte Carlo, Sydney, Dubai, Miami, and yes, Washington, where the total prize money ranges from $400,000 to a few million and players get chauffeured from luxury hotels to matches in S Class Mercedeses.

Challengers. A respectable midlevel circuit or the minor leagues, depending on whom you ask. First-round losers pocket a few hundred dollars, enough to get to the next tournament, and winners can take home several thousand.

Futures and satellites. The very bottom rung of the minor leagues, where aspiring, and occasionally delusional, tennis players fight to accumulate enough ranking points to move up to the next level. “They’re the doldrums of professional tennis,” says Spracklin. “You want to get out as soon as you can.”

At any given time, there are roughly a dozen futures events taking place in just about every corner of the world—Uzbekistan, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Lebanon, small towns all over Europe and the Americas. While playing futures, Spracklin once took a 13-hour bus ride from El Salvador to Honduras, which included a three-hour stop for customs. When Spracklin and his two traveling partners finally got to the tournament hotel in Tegucigalpa, there were no triple rooms left. They paid for a double, hoping the beds would be big enough to sleep two. They were not. Spracklin and his buddies drew straws for the floor. “As usual, I lost,” says Spracklin. He spread out a towel over the tiles next to the window and spent a sleepless night as a street festival raged outside. “When the maracas were finally put away, they blasted Shakira for the rest of the night,” says Spracklin, who lost his match the next day.

Money is clearly not the incentive for Spracklin, a resident of Reston, Va., to tour the continent with his racket and togs. First-round losers of futures take home $117.50, finalists only $900. He does it for ranking points, which are earned by winning matches. Advance to the final 16 in the main draw of a futures and you win one ATP point. Win the whole thing and you get 12 to 18 points, good enough to be ranked maybe 800th in the world. Win the US Open, the Super Bowl of American tennis, and you win 1,000 points and a top-50 ranking based on that tournament alone.

The higher you’re ranked, the bigger the tournament you can get into. The bigger the tournament, the more money you can earn. After Marat Safin broke through to win the 2000 US Open (and the first-place check of $800,000), a reporter asked him if it was the biggest moment of his career. “No,” he answered immediately. “My biggest moment was getting my first ATP singles point.”

As is the case in baseball, you don’t want to stay in the minor leagues too long; they’re full of guys way past their primes just trying to hang on a little longer. But as is not the case in baseball, your room and board aren’t paid for while you’re suffering through your apprenticeship. There are no per diems, team charters, or free equipment. Unless you’re a top-200 pro, your health insurance comes out of your own pocket. And you can’t ever get cut from the team. There’s no one to tell you when your time is up.

Down a set and a break against Kim, Spracklin looked down at his wrist, which, after a moment of torturous pain, felt strangely fine. For all intents and purposes, the match was already decided, but pride and adrenaline kept Spracklin playing. “I didn’t want to look like the guy who quit because he was getting his ass kicked,” he says.

On the next point, he felt his wrist collapse again and asked for the trainer.

“Something’s wrong,” he told the trainer, who looked at the scoreboard and then back at Spracklin with his eyebrows raised.

“I just want to finish the match,” Spracklin insisted. The trainer taped Spracklin’s wrist.

On the next point, the tendon ripped out a third time. “Every time, I screamed like a little girl,” says Spracklin. “I’d never felt pain like that before.”

Spracklin walked around in a daze, unable to comprehend what was happening. He considered finishing lefty. Finally, he told the chair umpire he was unable to continue, defaulting the match, 6-1, 5-1. “I was in physical pain, but I knew that would pass,” says Spracklin. “What hurt most was being beaten down at what should have been my highest moment.”

The official diagnosis was extensor carpi ulnaris subluxation with torn ligaments, an unusual and rare injury. Doctors in Washington put Spracklin’s wrist in a splint, and a few weeks later, he went back to Massachusetts, where he grew up, to see a hand specialist. Spracklin spent his 25th birthday in pre-op, and just before Christmas, he went under the knife.

Trevor’s parents, Carol and Ken Spracklin, who run a physical-therapy practice in Spracklin’s hometown of North Andover, had watched from the stands at the Legg Mason. “It was horrible,” recalls Carol. “We could tell instantly that he wasn’t going to be back playing anytime soon.”

Carol Spracklin knows just how deep tennis runs in her son. “When Trevor was really little, we would bring him along to his father’s racquetball tournaments, and between matches, he would walk out on the court with his little mini racket and start hitting against the wall. He would run up and hit the ball, run up and hit it again, over and over. Some people saw this little guy with amazing coordination and asked me how old he was. I remember telling them that he was turning 1 the next day.”

The first word Spracklin ever spoke was “ball.” “Trevor never really played with toys,” says Carol. “He played with balls and bats and rackets. I guess pushier parents would have seen that and put him in tournaments when he was 6 years old, but he didn’t start those until much later.”

Spracklin, in fact, began playing tournaments at 14. “His first ranking was terrible,” says Carol. By the time he graduated from high school, however, he was a state champion, nationally ranked, and had earned himself a partial scholarship to the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, Va. “It just seemed to get easier and easier,” says Spracklin. “I like to think I’m a late bloomer.”

Spracklin first realized that he might have the ability to play beyond college the summer after his junior year at William and Mary. First, he and a college teammate won the Legg Mason Wild Card Challenge in doubles, earning a berth at the Legg Mason Classic. Then, on a lark, he played a futures in Florida, winning three matches to qualify for the main draw and knocking off a seeded player in the first round before losing. “I was kinda shocked by my own ability,” he says. “I mean, I’d never thought that I could compete on any kind of professional level, but here I was holding my own. I thought, Geez, I could actually pull this off.”

By the time Spracklin left Williamsburg with a business degree, he had not only earned a full scholarship but also achieved national collegiate rankings as high as 62nd in singles and 25th in doubles, good enough to compete in the NCAA championships. Still, he graduated without committing his future to professional tennis. He dabbled in a few money tournaments, played doubles in a futures in Los Angeles, and waited for a sign.

It came in the form of a challenge: A former touring pro told Spracklin that he just needed to “get out there and do it.” Spracklin hooked up with some recently graduated friends and, in January 2002, started the grind. He didn’t win his first point until his 12th tournament, but he never worried about getting skunked. “By the time I finally got a point, I’d already played four or five matches for points, so I knew I was right there,” says Spracklin. “Still, it was a big weight off my chest.”

Following his wrist injury, Spracklin spent a few months sitting around at home, unable to do anything more than leg raises or squats, stewing about his future. “That was probably the lowest point of my life,” says Spracklin. “Lying in bed with my cast, I didn’t think I’d ever get back on that stage again.”

The injury was a financial hit, too. “My means of earning money was taken away from me,” he says. He couldn’t even hold a racket, and an entire year of savings dripped away as he rehabbed the wrist. It wasn’t until last September that Spracklin finally went back out on tour, picking up four quick points and boosting his world ranking back up to 1,160. (It’s now 1,177.)

Spracklin enters the 2004 Legg Mason Wild Card Challenge with the goal of eventually pushing that ranking into triple digits. On a June morning, he pulls his 1998 Toyota Avalon into the parking lot of the Arlington Y Tennis and Squash Club for his first-round match. In the car’s back window lies a tournament trophy from the 2003 Virginia State Doubles Championships, sun-bleached and apparently forgotten. Spracklin gets out, pops the trunk, and prepares to take the court in his sixth year playing the Challenge. As the 2002 singles champion and the 1999, 2001, and 2002 doubles winner, he’s the No. 1 seed. (Last summer, just a couple of months back from his injury, he lost in the quarterfinals.)

Since its inception, the Challenge has awarded its singles and doubles winners wild cards into the main draw of the Legg Mason Classic. Over the next week and a half, 150 of the mid-Atlantic region’s best players, professional and amateur, young and old, will be competing for those coveted slots, along with the $1,000 that goes to the singles champion and the $2,000 to the winning doubles team.

This year, after six months of traveling on the futures circuit to tournaments in Florida, Greece, and Sweden, Spracklin has all of $90 to show for it. Even worse, he has yet to earn any ranking points. “It’s dejecting,” he says. “The trips to Florida were big busts, but Europe was really tough, because I thought I was playing good tennis. It’s a real blow to your ego and your motivation.”

Recently, Spracklin has been getting offered teaching-pro positions when he travels to tournaments. What’s more, he’s beginning to consider them. “Three years ago, when I was just starting out, treading water pretty easily, I wouldn’t have even thought about it,” he says. “Now I say, ‘Can I please have your name and number, and here’s my info, and I may be in touch shortly.’ When there’s water creeping up on your lips, you start looking for life vests.”

“I really need this tournament,” he says. “If I win, it’s not only a big payday, but also something telling me that I’ve still got it, that I can still go. If I don’t win, then I could have a different feel towards those job offers. Maybe I’ll get a little bit more distracted by the next stage of my life.”

Or maybe he’ll get a sponsor, a perk that would surely extend his career. It’s hard enough to play for peanuts when you’re preoccupied with the minutiae of traveling—landing an affordable room, finding cheap food that won’t make you sick, figuring out public-transportation signs in a foreign language. Add in the stress of an ever-shrinking bank account and it’s a wonder anyone makes it on the professional tour at all. For players like Spracklin, who aren’t being supported by their parents, sponsors are the only salvation, angel investors willing to put money into a player with no expectations of returns. Most often, they’re simply wealthy people with an interest in tennis. Sponsoring a player is what they do instead of owning a racehorse.

“You can tell which guys on tour have sponsors,” says Spracklin. “They’re the guys who stay in the tournament hotel and get a single, or are always eating at Chili’s while guys like me are looking around for the grocery store.”

Spracklin’s sponsorless life requires him to play money tournaments—open tournaments with no ATP ranking consequences—on a fairly regular basis. “I could probably play one every week and pick up anywhere between $300 and $1,500,” he says, “but I just try to do them to help pay for trips to futures.” He also supplements his income by hitting with local junior players whenever he’s in town, a lucrative gig that can earn pros upward of $80 an hour. “It kills my game, though,” says Spracklin. “If I hit too hard, they can’t get it back.”

Spracklin mostly just tries to stretch what money he has. “When I see $9 for a plate of pasta, I think, Oh, no, I could get two meals for that somewhere else,” he says. “Canned tuna with Cool Ranch Doritos used to be a staple of mine on the tour, until I found out about all the mercury stuff.”

“I hate to say it, but it really does come down to money,” says Spracklin. “Right now, if I were to go out and give tennis the attention and dedication that it requires, I’d be broke in less than a month. But with a sponsor, I’d be able to eat, sleep, and drink my tennis, and only my tennis. Don’t get me wrong: The money tournaments are fun, and I like working with kids. But being able to focus on my ranking is something I’ve always wished I could do.”

First up for Spracklin in the Wild Card Challenge is a lanky 21-year-old University of Maryland grad with a decent lefty serve. During the warm-up, the old-timers clustered around the viewing window quickly size up the kid. “This one’s going to be over pretty fast,” one remarks. “But Trevor’s nice,” quips another. “He’ll give him a couple games.”

Forty-five minutes later, Spracklin’s opponent is soaked in sweat and packing his bag. His only consolation is that he actually won a game in the second set. “Poor kid,” says Spracklin as he comes off the court. “Did you know he’s trying to go pro?”

Most good college players try the pros for at least a year, though few have much success. There are only four American players with college degrees in the top 250: Paul Goldstein of Rockville, Md., Alex Kim of Potomac, Md., Colorado’s Jeff Salzenstein, and former University of Virginia star Brian Vahaly, from Atlanta. They’ll probably never become household names, but they serve as inspiration to legions of aspiring pros, because they’ve made it—living and traveling solely on their professional-tennis winnings. Vahaly broke into the top 100 in 2003 and earned $288,000. After expenses and taxes, he netted close to $100,000 on the year. Spracklin has earned less than $15,000 over his entire career.

For Spracklin, the threshold for success on the professional tour is the top 300. “Even if you win five or six futures, that only gives you, like, 70 points [about top 500],” he says. “You can’t make a living there. At 300, you can do things. You’re able to offset a lot of your costs, you’re sure to get equipment sponsors, and you can play qualifying at ATP Tour events, even grand slams.”

In a sport where most careers span from ages 20 to 27, Spracklin, at 26, is near the end of his window. “He really needs to make some inroads against his competition in the next year or two, before his body starts to break down,” says William and Mary coach Peter Daub, who developed Spracklin’s game for competition on the professional level.

Spracklin’s next opponent in the Challenge is a “floater,” a dangerous, unseeded player with the ability to upset a favorite. Thanakorn “George” Duangmanee, of Fairfax, Va., dropped out of school in Thailand to turn pro. “I thought I was good, but I didn’t make it past the first round in any tournaments,” says the 33-year-old Duangmanee. “So I decided it wasn’t going to happen and went to college.” Now a Morgan Stanley vice president, Duangmanee also directs the Thai Tennis Organization, which, among other things, gives financial and coaching support to promising Thai players.

Duangmanee gives Spracklin all he can handle before losing 7-5, 6-4. After the match, a relieved Spracklin plays nice with Duangmanee’s large contingent of friends and family. “If Trevor were Thai, he’d be the No. 2 or 3 player in Thailand,” says Nick Srisawat, who helps Duangmanee run the Thai Tennis Organization. “He’d be one of our national heroes. We’d probably be helping him out with sponsors.”

Spracklin rolls into the quarterfinals, where he faces ninth-seeded Hyon Yoo, a 27-year-old Rockville native who was a teammate of Vahaly’s at UVA. Yoo and Spracklin played each other in college, though neither can remember who won. “Anyway, that was six years ago,” says Yoo. “Trevor’s game is so much better now.”

Yoo’s words are prophetic. Spracklin breaks Yoo early in each set and cruises to a 6-3, 6-4 win. Afterward, Yoo sits on a locker-room bench, eating a bagged lunch. During college, he had played a futures event, and though it wasn’t a bad experience, he realized that he just didn’t have the urge to grind it out on a daily basis. “It’s not flashy at all out there,” he says. “Guys are scrapping and penny-pinching just to be able to go to the grocery store and make a sandwich.” Yoo holds up his peanut-butter-and-jelly to illustrate. “You don’t have jack.”

Yoo considers Spracklin’s chances of going from jack to jackpot. “Trevor’s got a good shot right now. He’s just this far away,” he says, holding his thumb and forefinger a few millimeters apart. “It’s not a forehand issue or a backhand issue. He’s just gotta get that big win in the pros, and I hope he does. He’s a good guy. All of us are rooting for him.”

Another workmanlike win later and Spracklin is in the final. About 50 people look on as Spracklin and his opponent, fifth-seeded Matt Scott, warm up. For Scott, a 22-year-old Notre Dame grad from Oakton, Va., the Challenge marks the beginning of a professional tennis career. “I’m going to give it a year, and then I’ll re-evaluate,” he says.

The crowd is primed for a competitive match, but every time it seems as if Scott might put together a string of points, Spracklin hits the bigger, better shot. In the fifth game of the second set, with the first set already in his pocket, Spracklin passes a net-charging Scott with a forehand laser down the line. On the next point, Scott approaches again and Spracklin goes the other direction, dipping a cross-court forehand past his opponent at an impossible angle. As Spracklin finishes the stroke, the ball boy standing behind him whispers, “Oh my God.” Two games later, Spracklin and Scott shake hands at the net.

Spracklin has little time to enjoy the win. He and his doubles partner, 37-year-old Carl Clark, have breezed through the doubles draw, and in the final, they face the team of Christopher Groer, a former top-500 pro, and Joey Atas, the Big Ten Conference’s freshman of the year at Ohio State. “It’s been a lot of stress and worrying,” says Clark, a teaching pro from Richmond, before the match. “There’s a lot on the line here.”

Atas and Groer try to feel their way through the first set, but Spracklin and Clark are too inspired. They win the first set easily, 6-2, knocking fists and exhorting each other between points. The second set is no different. Spracklin and Clark practically snarl as they play. On changeovers, they hardly sit down or take water, getting up to pace the court like agitated animals. At 3-1, Spracklin snaps off another monster serve, and the tournament photographer whispers to the man sitting next to him, “Why hasn’t Trevor gone pro?”

On match point, Spracklin rockets his umpteenth serve of the tournament. When Groer’s return finds the net, Spracklin jumps up and punches the air. “Come on!” he screams. Clark throws his arms up, a huge grin overtaking his face. The teams shake hands, and as Spracklin walks back to his gear, he playfully tosses a game ball to his 24-year-old sister, Beth Spracklin, who squeals like the thrilled young fan she’s mimicking.

“I’ve been watching him play tennis my entire life,” says Beth. “I can’t imagine him doing anything else. He’s going to play tennis forever, one way or another.”

Spracklin went to the US Open in 2001, as a spectator. As he wandered from court to court, men and women his age carrying racket bags emerged from unmarked doors and slipped into others with a wave of their player passes. Just one month before, playing doubles at the Legg Mason Classic, he had been in their shoes, hanging out in the players-only lounge, signing autographs, an all-access pass dangling from his neck. Standing in line with the rest of the hoi polloi at New York’s Flushing Meadows, waiting for his turn to pay $15 for a hamburger and fries, having already spent $50 on his ticket, he vowed then and there that he would never return to the US Open until he was playing in it. “If there was a bare minimum, that would be it,” says Spracklin. “To get a player pass to the Open.”

And what if he doesn’t? “I’ll be disappointed,” says Spracklin. “But I would never consider it a failure. That year off really grounded me. It made me realize how fragile pro tennis is. If I make it, I make it. If I don’t, I’ve gained enough experiences and skills that it’s going to be a success no matter what. This is definitely my last shot at professional tennis, but it’s not my last shot at life.”

Last year, the lowest player accepted into the US Open main draw was ranked 108th in the world. The last player into qualifying was 301. Spracklin needs at least 100 more ranking points to reach the top 300—which means he’ll need to win just about every futures he enters between now and August. Of course, if he wins the Legg Mason Classic, things will take care of themselves. “If I can just make some noise in the main draw, that would be huge,” says Spracklin, cracking a wistful smile. “But I try really hard not to think about that stuff. I’d rather have it just happen than dream it and not have it come true.”

It’s going to be even harder for Spracklin this year. Because the Legg Mason Classic would conflict with the Olympics, and so many pros had already committed to Greece, the tournament organizers decided to contract the draw from 56 to 32. That meant eliminating the singles wild card reserved for the Challenge winner. Now, Spracklin’s wild card gets him only into the qualifying round. (The doubles will remain the same as before, however.) So for Spracklin’s dreams to come true, he’ll have to win three matches in the qualifier just to get into the main draw. And if he does that, he could very well face a seeded player in the first round, someone like Agassi or Lleyton Hewitt, who will have spent the past week resting up and getting massages from his trainer while Spracklin will have fought tooth and nail in the August heat.

In two days, Spracklin starts grinding again, first at a local money tournament where the top prize is $500. Then it’s off to an ATP tournament in Newport, R.I. (“I have about a 20 percent chance of getting into the qualies,” he says), and money tournaments in New Hampshire and Richmond. With enough money saved, Spracklin will then go back out to play futures and challengers.

Tonight, however, Spracklin will celebrate. “The way I’m playing now, I’m stoked,” he says, sagging in his chair, spent and satisfied as tournament officials begin packing up. “This is the best I’ve felt since before I got hurt, and I feel like I’m on a roll. Bring ’em on.” CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Charles Steck.