By Erin Bruehl, USTA.com
At 5’2" and just 120 pounds, Lauren Davis is petite by any standards, let alone those for tennis, a game where usually the bigger a player is, the better with the seeming advantages of more power and an easier ability to get on top of the ball with each stroke.
But size is not holding back the 17-year-old Davis, whose game is surging and reached the next levels in the past few months, including a 27-match win streak to close out 2010, which introduced her to the professional game with lots of potential for success.
Davis, armed with a powerful backhand, had a solid 2010 campaign on the junior circuit heading into last fall, including reaching the final at the prestigious Easter Bowl, as well as on the ITF Circuit.
Yet it was in October that her breakthrough to the next level really began.
She won her first career professional title at a $10,000 USTA Pro Circuit event in Williamsburg, Va. on clay, and shortly thereafter lost in the semifinals of the Pan American Closed ITF Championships - a junior event - which turned into her last loss of 2010.
From there, Davis’ 27-match win streak began, as she won her second pro title at $25,000 Bayamon, defeating her good friend Madison Keys in the final. A few weeks later, Davis found herself playing in the XXIV Yucatan World Cup 2010, a Grade 1 ITF event, in Mexico when something really clicked for her despite the fact that she did not feel she was playing her best.
"I was just really solid and strong mentally during that time," Davis said of her win streak. "I played a Grade 1 ITF (in Mexico) and was not playing great the whole tournament but I was just able to grid it out and get through it mentally and I ended up winning the tournament. I think it is really just mental for me."
And she stayed mentally tough, going on to win another Grade 1 tournament, the Eddie Herr International Junior Championships and then the Girls’ 18s title at the prestigious Dunlop Orange Bowl in December.
Shortly after winning the title in Bayamon, Davis heard she was invited to compete in the USTA Australian Open Wild Card Playoffs, where the winner would earn a wild card entry into the women’s singles main draw of the 2011 Australian Open. Competing against seven other women, Davis kept her win streak going, defeating the older, more experienced 6’1" CoCo Vandeweghe in the final to earn her first main draw berth in a WTA Tour tournament.
"I was really excited," Davis said of hearing about the playoffs. "I didn’t go in with any expectations of winning it so I just went out there and played my game and I won, so I was happy."
It earned Davis her first-ever trip to Australia, where she officially turned professional. For her first WTA Tour match, she was drawn to face powerful No. 6 seed Samantha Stosur, the hometown favorite, on Center Court.
Most young players would be intimidated, as Davis felt at first, but quickly changed her attitude that this was just another opportunity to keep growing her game. And although she lost 6-1, 6-1, Davis left the match knowing what she needed to improve in order to be on the same level as Stosur.
"When I heard I was playing her, I was nervous but then I said, ‘No, this is good experience for me.’ To play on centre court against Sam Stosur, it was great," Davis said. "I knew it would be hard. I would see whenever I would hit in the middle of the court, even if it was deep, she would just put it away right past me. It gave me a lot of insight into what I have to do next so when I got back to training, I know what I have to work on like try hitting balls in the corners and deep and get the ball out of center court."
The loss put an end to Davis’ win streak, but it still ended pretty impressively, with her also winning 36 of 37 matches spanning back to her title win in Williamsburg.
Also in Australia, as the No. 3 seed in juniors, she was upset in the third round, which curtailed her goal to be the world No. 1 junior, but she reached No. 3 in the world and currently is No. 5, as well as the highest-ranked American girl.
She reached a career-high of No. 421 on the WTA Tour after the tournament and is now No. 429.
Her surge in 2010 coincided with her decision at the beginning of the year to move from her hometown of Cleveland, OH, where she started playing at age 9, to train at the Evert Academy in Boca Raton, Fla. It was not an easy choice to leave her regular high school (she is a junior), her friends and her family behind at age 16 to live in a dorm, do online school and train more intensively.
But she decided she wanted to take her game to the next level and play professionally, so she knew she needed a top-notch place to train and be able to train outside year-round, which she clearly could not do in Cleveland. The first few months were hard and Davis missed everything from home, but things started to fall into place, and she could not be happier with her decision and where it has taken her game.
"I said ‘This is what I want to do and I think I can be really good’ so I wanted to go to the next level and I knew I couldn’t stay in Cleveland to do it. I want to play outside all the time and get a lot of good players to hit with," Davis said.
"It was a no brainer for me to pick the Evert Academy. I would do anything to chase my dream. My mom was really hesitant to let me go. I lived in Cleveland my whole life and it would be a huge change for me but I ended up adapting really well," she added. "I met a lot of friends. The first two months I was so homesick, I wanted to go home but I knew this was what I wanted to do. I missed home but after a few months, something clicked and I love it now. I would never go back."
At the Evert Academy, Davis trains with Federico Ricci and also has on-court instruction from John Evert. When she travels to tournaments she usually goes with Keys.
Her backhand has already developed into a force and she continues to improve other aspects of her game that are especially important for a more petite player, including speed for more court coverage and footwork. And her mental toughness is as strong as ever.
"I have improved so much, my backhand has improved so much, it is really my weapon now," Davis said. "My serve has gotten better but there is always room to improve on it. And my movement is a 100 times better. Since I am not too tall, I have to make up for it with my speed.
"I think for sure for smaller players, their movement has to be better; they are probably faster on the court," she added. "Mentally you have to be very sharp and just get a lot of balls back and even though you are not that tall, you have to take balls early and try to take control of the points."
Davis turns 18 this fall and plans to play only professional events - with the exception of possibly the junior Grand Slams this year - and hopes to continue to take her game towards the highest levels.
Right after she left Australia, U.S. Fed Cup Captain Mary Joe Fernandez invited Davis to travel with her team to its quarterfinal tie against Belgium in Antwerp as a practice partner. Davis did not really know any of the team members - with the exception of Melanie Oudin - but again quickly made new friends and earned some valuable experience being able to practice with seasoned professionals for a whole week.
"It was really fun, everyone was so fun and welcoming," she said of the U.S. Fed Cup Team. "I really liked training with them, they gave 100 percent all the time and it is good practicing with people who are better than you. They hit the ball so hard and deep and going back to Boca, I knew what I have to work on."
Fernandez knew of Davis’ recent string of success and her enormous potential - which was only reinforced when she saw her practice throughout the week in Antwerp - and sees a very bright future for the 17-year-old.
"It was great having Lauren Davis with us. I think we are going to see a lot from her," Fernandez said. "She’s won so many matches in the last season, including 36 out of 37 at one point. She’s definitely one to watch."