MARCO ISLAND — Ariel Schneider, 13, has been gone from her Atlanta home for more than two weeks. Much of her time has consisted of hitting tennis balls — for hours.
She played and won the 14-and-under title at Lehigh Acres last weekend, but admittedly the competition was minimal. She went to a clinic on Wednesday at Coconut Point, and will play as many as four tournaments in July.
Her coach, Gary McDevitt, is trying to get her exposed quickly to better competition, to increase her Florida USTA Junior ranking to where she can compete with other players on their way up the young tennis ladder.
For Schneider and McDevitt, it is serious business.
Her goal is to play tennis at a level that draws scholarship offers and more.
McDevitt opened his McDevitt High Performance Tennis Academy at the Marco Island Racquet Center, almost at the same time Schneider came to town.
Schneider has played tennis for three years. In 2010 she went under the tutelage of Frederico Rodriguez at Coosa Country Club in Rome, Ga., but he left to become a teaching professional for the Chris Evert Tennis Academy in Boca Raton in January.
Ranked 11th in girls 12-and-under in Georgia in 2010, Schneider said she was shocked when Rodriguez left and the family wasn’t sure what to do.
Her parents, Robert and Donia, looked around, but had little experience in the tennis arena. Longtime friends Barbara and John Vander Veen of Marco Island suggested they come for vacation to see what the tennis program was like on Marco.
Barbara Vander Veen suggested McDevitt be Ariel’s coach.
“I changed coaches myself because Gary is a good coach,” said Barbara Vander Veen, who has some coaching knowledge.
Vander Veen was a former teacher and very successful head track coach for 30 years in Marietta, Ga. However, she said the family’s experience with their son Colin being on the United States Skating Team was the real educator.
“I understand the ups and downs, the stresses,” Vander Veen said. “My son performed in the Nationals (championship) 12 times, including Olympic trials, and competed in international events. My understanding of sports psychology came from his experiences.”
The Schneider family did vacation on Marco for two weeks to get a better feel for the island and McDevitt. They decided to move forward.
The Vander Veen home became Ariel’s. They are providing housing, food, buying competitive tennis clothes, and transportation to clinics and tournaments to get Schneider started.
The Schneiders are very thankful for the assistance as they, like the Vander Veens did for their son, have to make sacrifices for Ariel’s dream. Ariel’s dad works two jobs, her mother one and also is in real estate.
“We are grateful for the (Vander Veen) help and support,” Donia said. “We are trying to do what is best for Ariel.”
Ariel cringes when McDevitt talks about her being a “little late in the game at 13. There is a window of opportunity for young players, and she needs to make up with a strong commitment,” he said. “College coaches look at the 14s, but by the 16s that’s where it's at to gain interest for at least a scholarship. By that time, we need to be in the top 15 in Florida.”
McDevitt said Ariel has tremendous potential.
“She has very good foot speed and is very intelligent, which helps any coach as she can assimilate and put what she has learned into the game quickly,” he said.
McDevitt said Schneider has a huge forehand and will add more versatility. She has a one-handed backhand not often seen among young or older players. However, McDevitt said it is a positive, along with being a left-handed player.
“She has no perceived weaknesses,” he said. “Kids like Ariel will work hard, and she has the ability to make up lost time and be playing at a high level by (age) 15.”
Barbara Vander Veen agreed.
“She has good body structure, is not afraid to practice hard and is strong willed,” she said. “Her personality is similar to my son’s."
McDevitt thinks Schneider training on Marco Island is a plus. “She might get lost in the shuffle in a big city like Atlanta, but not on Marco,” he said. “Large academies are more of a business. She will get more traditional attention here.”
Not to mention the cost savings. The Evert Academy is $40,000 annually for a full-time resident.
Donia Schneider talks of how welcoming the Marco community has been. If the summer goes well, Ariel will go into eighth grade at the Marco Island Charter Middle School.
“The community here has been wonderful,” Schneider said.
Club members stop to watch Ariel play. McDevitt said he is encouraged by members who may become sponsors for the road ahead.
He thinks Marco’s Lauren Embree’s success has brought more local enthusiasm among the tennis community. Embree led the University of Florida’s women’s tennis team to the NCAA championship this spring.
“I like the attention I have received,” Ariel Schneider said. “I find it interesting that I can have people that will look up to me. I want to be a good role model. I will give 110 percent in my effort, mind and heart.”
Time is ticking.