By Peter Horner
In June 2008, when a then 9-year-old Mikayla Parks and her younger sister Alycia, then 7, received all A’s and B’s on their report cards, their mother, Erica, treated them to a trip to a toy store near their Locust Grove, Ga., home. Mikayla quickly picked out the toy she wanted, but Alycia couldn’t make up her mind. With her older sister growing increasingly impatient and her mother giving her the “now-or-never” look, Alycia grabbed a tennis racquet off the shelf.
Never mind that neither Alycia nor anyone else in her immediate family played tennis. Something about the racquet caught Alycia’s eye, and that choice would quickly change her family’s life.
Shortly after the shopping spree, Erica took Mikayla and Alycia to a public tennis court and watched in amazement as the girls swatted a ball back and forth across the net with the greatest of ease. Naturally athletic, Mikayla and Alycia excelled at softball, basketball and track, but this was their first taste of tennis. Erica immediately called her husband, Michael. “You’re not going to believe this,” she said.
Michael Parks, a former high school basketball star in North Carolina, didn’t know much about tennis, but he knew athletic talent and potential when he saw it. Soon the Parks sisters were taking tennis lessons, and within a few months, Mikayla and Alycia were playing USTA Jr. Team Tennis and beating just about everyone they faced. Within a year, both girls held state rankings and received invitations to a USTA Tennis Camp where they caught the attention of the USTA Player Development team.
In January 2010, just 18 months after they fi rst picked up tennis racquets, Mikayla and Alycia, along with their parents, moved to south Florida at the USTA’s invitation so the girls could further develop their talents at the USTA Training Center Headquarters in Boca Raton, Fla.
“The USTA has meant the world to us,” Michael Parks says. “I can’t even describe it. I didn’t know anything about [tennis], so that made things a little scary. The USTA has done a wonderful job of guiding us and helping our kids develop their talent.”
Given the girls’ natural athletic ability and foot speed along with their tennis skills, Michael Parks often hears others compare Mikayla and Alycia to another set of sisters who’ve dominated the professional women’s tennis tour for a decade—Venus and Serena Williams.
“My kids love Venus and Serena,” Michael says. “I love Venus and Serena and admire everything they’ve accomplished. They called my kids last year and we recently met Venus in person. People are going to compare, that’s normal, but I want my kids to be themselves.”
USTA national coach Richard Ashby, who’s worked with the girls for more than a year in Boca Raton, says it’s way too soon to predict what the future holds for them. “Obviously, it’s nice for them to be compared to Venus and Serena. I don’t see anything wrong with that, as long as the kids don’t feel any pressure from those comparisons.”
For the record, Mikayla and Alycia both say Venus and Serena are their favorite players, but they also “really like” Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Mikayla and Alycia both say they like tennis, “because it’s fun,” and they watch Tennis Channel every chance they get to, “learn tips from the pros.” Mikayla’s favorite thing about tennis: “Probably most everything.” Alycia’s favorite thing about tennis: “I like to win.”
While Mikayla and Alycia are close in many ways, their comments reflect their different personalities. According to Michael, Mikayla is “talented,” “sweet,” “eager to learn” and “eager to please,” while Alycia is a “phenom,” “chasing after her older sister,” and “incredibly competitive.” Sound like another set of tennis-playing sisters you’ve seen before?
According to Ashby, Mikayla and Alycia have plenty of natural ability, but both need to learn how to control their emotions as well as their shots, to focus on the moment and finish points rather than trying to blast the ball past opponents. At their coaches’ suggestion, the Parks sisters didn’t play tournaments in 2010 while concentrating on their strokes, serves and strategy, but Mikayla, 11, and Alycia, 10, look forward to testing their match skills and mental toughness once again in 2011, playing up in the 14-and-under division.
“When you look at the amount of time they’ve been involved with the game, it’s amazing how well they play,” says Rodney Harmon, a former USTA national coach who worked with the girls for more than a year. “They’ve made a lot of progress, they have a lot of natural ability, they listen and they really want to be good. So I think their long-term prognosis is they have a shot at being really good players.”