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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Family puts all eggs in one racket

She is doing it all wrong. That's what they keep telling Mary Gambale. If you truly want to be a professional tennis star, then you can't expect to make it happen in your backyard in Billerica. You must move to Florida, enroll in a prestigious academy, play juniors. You certainly must not rely on your father as your inspiration and your coach. You should not have turned pro, thereby eliminating any chance of a college scholarship. And, for crying out loud, you can't expect to win if you are only 16 years old and 5 feet 3 inches tall.

''I can tell sometimes," Gambale said. ''They'll be across the net from me thinking, 'How can I be losing to this kid?' But there's a lot of thought behind this."

That should qualify as today's sports understatement. Mary's father, Bob Gambale, was already dreaming of turning Mary into a tennis prodigy when she was 9 months, when he encouraged her to throw a ball at various targets he placed around their home. He enrolled her in taekwondo as a 5-year-old to improve her concentration and discipline. He quit his job and dedicated his life to making her a champion tennis player.

As a result, the future of the entire Gambale family rests in the hands of their teenage daughter with the killer instinct and killer smile (braces and all). Victoria Gambale has a job in food service in the Billerica school system to help pay the bills, but with two other children to support, finances are tight. All of them are counting on Mary making it big -- as soon as possible. The pressure is immense.

''We go day to day," Bob Gambale explained. ''Sometimes it's stressful. But I believe in Mary. I know her time is coming."

The past couple of months have done nothing to dampen his enthusiasm. Gambale was invited to participate in a round-robin for eight top young Americans in Key Biscayne, Fla., and emerged as the winner by beating the highly regarded Ashley Harkleroad and Carly Gullickson. The prize was a wild card in the French Open qualifier.

Sandy Mittleman, who specializes in training young talent, recently began helping with Gambale's coaching and says she has only scratched the surface of her ability.

''I asked her to do a couple of things on the court that kids who are 16 and looking to be in the top 20 someday need to know how to do," Mittleman said. ''I know what it should look like. It didn't take her more than a half an hour to convince me she's got what it takes."

Ten days ago, Gambale made it to the final of a pro clay-court tournament in Raleigh, N.C., beginning her run with an upset of Lindsay Lee-Waters, who once was ranked as high as 33d in the world. She outlasted Cory Ann Avants, a top 200 player, in three sets, then knocked off Shenay Perry, ranked 100th, in the quarterfinals. Her semifinal opponent, Marissa Irvin, is a former Stanford star who made it to the third round of last year's French Open and was ranked 70th in the world. Gambale was winning, 6-4, 4-0, when Irvin retired from the match.

Gambale lost to Olha Lazarchuk in the final but still skipped off with a check for $6,200 and newfound respect from peers who dismissed her in the past because of her unorthodox career decisions.

''For years, everyone has been telling us we're doing this all wrong," Bob Gambale said. ''But this works for us. It works for Mary. That's all we care about."

This morning, Gambale will play her first match in Paris, with her father by her side, as always. Mittleman will wait anxiously by the phone, alongside Mo LeClerc, tennis director at Nashua Country Club, who has donated court time and tennis advice to Gambale for more than eight years.

They have been through the tough times, when Bob and Mary spent three winters in Sarasota, Fla., living in a mobile home and training with the Longwood Athletic Club. The father was unhappy with the lack of quality competition; the daughter was unhappy with being so far from her mother and siblings.

''The whole thing was kind of a disaster," Mary said.

The Gambales came home last year and continued their own training program. Her game picked up again. She left for Paris ranked 275th in the world, a deceiving number since she is limited to 10 pro tournaments a year until she turns 18. She has played in only two so far this year, which is why her ranking climbed 137 points after her strong showing in Raleigh.

''Her skills are as good as anyone in the top 50," declared Mittleman. ''She just hasn't been given the opportunities that others have been given, and that's reflective of her rank.

''The thing that impresses me most about her is, no matter what I say, she does it without question. Usually when you deal with a player of her caliber, they say, 'I know,' or 'Whatever.' Not Mary. I can already see she has it in her head, and that's particularly important."

It can be lonely when you don't adhere to the path the tennis powers have deemed necessary. Sometimes, your invitation to a key tournament gets lost in the mail. There are no clothing endorsements, no personal trainers, no coaches who travel with you. You don't have access to state-of-the-art equipment or top-level sponsors. Gambale's goal is play so well that nobody can ignore her.

Asked what sets her game apart from others', she said, ''I'm going after every ball. You're going to have to bring your lunch when you play me. I'm going to keep fighting."

As a result of her singlemindedness, she does not have time to attend Billerica High School, so she is home-schooled. She misses most social opportunities because of tennis obligations.

''My life is very different," she conceded. ''I know all the airports in the world. I can get to any terminal, but if you put me in a high school, I wouldn't begin to know how to find my way to third period.

''It would be nice to experience [going to high school], but I've seen my path. I know where I want to go, and it's straight to the stadium court."

Her decision to return to her hometown has its benefits. She has been able to watch brother Robbie play baseball and sister Melissa perform in cheerleading competitions. She was invited by a friend last March to the Billerica semi-formal and dashed out and bought a dress for the occasion.

''It was the best time of my life," she said. ''I had so much fun. I got to dance, see everybody. I slept over my friend's house. I felt like I was like leading a double life."

Her tennis life reclaimed her the next morning. She'll always have Paris, but she needs to win three matches to make it to the main draw of the French Open.

''I don't know what will happen over there," Bob Gambale said, ''but she could shock the world."

She also could blow out a knee, and the dream would die there. There are no guarantees.

''I realize not everybody understands," she said. ''But my dad believes in me. I totally trust his word.

'' He's not one of those crazy tennis parents you hear about who is screaming and yelling during the matches. He's very cool. He's probably the most calm one out there."

No, Mary. That would be you.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.


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