Beaufort News

Hilton Head's Carter ready for Grand Slam chance

Making it to tennis' biggest stage requires a healthy dose of perseverance and a pinch of luck.

Hayley Carter's 2011 trip to Flushing Meadows, N.Y., required a lot more hard work than her initial visit.

When she was 9 years old in 2004, the Columbia native traveled to play in a tournament hosted by the Smith Stearns Tennis Academy at the Sea Pines Resort on Hilton Head Island. Her biggest prize came via the luck of the draw in the post-event dinner: Two tickets to attend the U.S. Open.

"I won the raffle before I even came here, so it's kind of funny," said Carter, now 16 and a full-time Smith Stearns student who is going where no academy attendee has advanced before.

Thanks to a stellar summer, she has earned a wild card to play in September's U.S. Open Juniors tournament.

"This is going to be the first player that we've had in the main draw of a grand slam juniors," said her instructor, B.J. Stearns, who also serves as the academy's director. "We've been in existence since 2002. Obviously it's a great accomplishment for her. She had a great summer and USTA thought she was deserving enough for a wild card."

Carter won singles and doubles titles at the Palmetto Championships in Belton; she also reached the semifinals at the USTA Pro Circuit tournament in Sumter, beating two professional players, a former No. 1-ranked junior and a former University of Florida player.

But it was the USTA Girls Junior Nationals in San Diego that put the polish on her resume. An unseeded player at the tournament playing in the 18s bracket, Carter beat four girls ranked in the USTA's top 35, including No. 2 Gabrielle Andrews, 4-6, 7-5, 6-2, earning "Player of the Day" honors.

To elevate her game was a matter of changing tactics -- and being assertive about it.

"I think I'm a little more aggressive, hitting the ball a little harder," Carter said. "I used to be kind of a defensive player, but now I'm looking to be more offensive."

Stearns said Carter is in a position to better dictate the flow of a game thanks to the power her 6-foot-tall frame is able to provide.

"She's a tall girl. Her weapons are she's got a very good serve and a very good forehand," Stearns said. "She's grown a lot in the last couple of years and she's almost done growing, so she'll be able to now move around. She's had some problems with bumps and bruises but she's been healthy, putting a lot of hard work in the last six months and it's paying off for sure."

Carter, with her parents Steve and Sandra, leave for New York on Saturday, but the road began at age 6 at the Richland County Tennis Center.

"She wanted to move up here when she was 11, so we went ahead and did that," said Sandra, who moved to Hilton Head to homeschool Hayley amid tennis lessons and tournament travel. "It's been a really good experience. All the girls play tennis together, go to school together, do extracurricular activities together, so it's like a big family of people doing the same thing you're doing. It's been really good for her."

As one of about 45 full-time students in the academy, a typical week begins with morning lessons five days a week. Twice a week she will lift weights in the middle of the day. At 3:15 begins a three-hour block of training with the final 45 minutes being on-court conditioning. And twice a week, from 6:30 to 7:45 p.m., she will go back to the gym and work out. Squeezed in between, she returns to her condo for homeschool lessons with mom.

And as Carter's amateur accolades pile up under Stearns' guidance, her goal of reaching the professional ranks grows that much closer.

"(Stearns is) training her for that," Sandra Carter said. "That's a huge goal, and a lot of things have to come together before you can do something like that. But that's in the back of his mind of what he's training her for."

Hayley's growing confidence helped pave the way for her top-eight finish in San Diego.

"I'm always hopeful that I can win a tournament, so I went in there trying to win," Carter said, "but I played really great tennis and I'm happy with my results."

Because a Smith Stearns student has yet to leap directly to the pro ranks, Carter's more likely goal 18 months from now would be to land at an elite college program. She mentioned UCLA as a favored destination before getting a shot at the pro cicruit.

"It's not impossible out there (to go pro early), when you have the talent of someone like Hayley, but it's tough," Stearns said. "You've got to have some breaks: No injuries, couple of right draws, etc."

By entering pro tournaments as an amateur, Carter is quickly learning the speed required to compete.

"I'm just surprised at how well I've been doing," Carter said. "The level at some of these pro tournaments is really impressive. It's very impressive to watch."

And with her continued development, Carter is fitting in as an equal and not a once-in-a-lifetime lucky tourist.

"This is one of her steps to getting to where hopefully one day she can be," said Stearns, who will be staying on Hilton Head Island to continue to operate the academy. The remaining students will continue their training -- but will take a break to monitor Carter's progress during tournament action. Her match will not be televised or streamed on the Internet, but a tracker on will update with every point earned.

Stearns said there is a buzz on campus about Carter's rising to the challenge of her biggest opportunity to date.

"We're not necessarily going to put a round or how many matches she wins to a goal," he said. "We hope she goes up and enjoys the experience."

Whatever luck finds her, Carter has displayed the ability to take it in stride and build for her next obstacle.

"I hope to do well, and hope to come back with some good results," Carter said.