Where Are They Now?: Stephanie HazlettJuly 28, 2014
By BRENDAN PERKINS
Herald Sports Editor
With her playing days in the rear view and her championships in tow, Stephanie Hazlett’s mission is to complete the cycle. All facets of the cycle, at that.
Hazlett’s days are spent with the brightest young tennis phenoms both locally and regionally as they dial up scorching serves and concussive forehands, the same shots that dictated Hazlett’s rise from Heritage Hills High School star to University of Florida stalwart to three-year tour professional. In molding her own students these days, there’s more to Hazlett’s message than just mechanically breeding players with pinpoint power and accuracy.
So Hazlett preaches fun. She encourages variety. Hazlett made her name in tennis and now makes her living with tennis. Her love affair with the sport smolders as much now as it did when she was competing, and in a sport notorious for burnout, Hazlett’s end game is for her players to enjoy the sport as much as she did.
Maintaining that equilibrium comes from the top.
“My parents did a good job managing me and my time. Most of it was my choice to skip social events and things like that. I’d drive to Evansville from Spencer County every day (for lessons in high school). But I think it’s important for these kids to still enjoy being a kid, and not put all their eggs in one basket,” said Hazlett, who captured Heritage Hills’ first state title of any kind when she blazed to the 1996 state singles crown by winning every match in straight sets. “You (want to) enjoy life and enjoy playing tennis, and if they don’t like it, they’re going to be miserable later on, no matter how good they get.
“I’ve (felt) successful as a coach if they still enjoy the sport and want to be a part of it once they’ve gone through high school tennis and college tennis, once they’ve gone through that, that they still have a passion for it. ... I love the sport. I like what it teaches people, not just about tennis, but about life. It’s been very good to me, and I enjoy spreading my knowledge and teaching these kids how to become better.”
Hazlett, 35, returned home nine years ago to teach in Evansville, starting at Advantage Court and Fitness, the facility owned by father Steve, who died a few years ago, and mother Anna. The city of Evansville tore down Advantage to make way for the new Ford Center and yet-to-be-built hotel adjacent to there, but the Hazletts partnered with the Evansville Community Tennis Association and all of Stephanie’s students made the move with her. She runs her programs out of the indoor Evansville Tennis Center, which opened in the fall of 2012.
Hazlett’s understudies include two boys (12 and 14) ranked in the top 20 nationally in their age divisions, as well as SMU sophomore Macie Elliott, who captured three state titles (2011 singles, 2012 team and 2013 doubles) in a sterling career at Evansville Memorial. At the moment, Hazlett manages about 40 kids in her summer program. They’re gleaning expertise from one of the most decorated female players to emerge from the Hoosier State.
Hazlett finished 40-1 in a staccato prep career in which she was the state runner-up as a freshman, played with the U.S. Junior National Team in Italy as a sophomore, returned as a junior to seize the state singles crown, then spent her senior year training at an academy in Florida. A two-time All-American at the University of Florida whose Gator squads finished in the top three nationally in each of her four seasons — including the NCAA title her freshman year — Hazlett’s collegiate career was just as bountiful. During her professional career, she trained at the Evert Tennis Academy and hit alongside Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, who both engaged in hitting sessions with players once or twice a week.
“First it was a little nerve-racking just because (Evert) is who she is, but it was neat to have her out on court and get to work with her,” said Hazlett, adding that she preferred Evert’s warmth to Navratilova’s chilly persona — though there’s no arguing about getting to train with a pair of legends who each won 18 Grand Slam titles. “They’ve both done so much for the sport that it’s hard not to want to be a part of any practice with either one of them.”
The life of an Evert or Graf or Williams isn’t created equal to the Hazletts of the pro circuit, though. “Professional tennis is not glamorous at all until you’re in the top 100, if not top 50 in the world,” Hazlett said. Athletes in many other sports are insulated by plush salaries and long-term contracts, but tennis players are essentially freelance artists. If you can’t win, you don’t get paid. If you get hurt and can’t compete, tough luck. Unless you’re privately funded or have the chops to have the United States Tennis Association support you, it’s oftentimes a paycheck-to-paycheck existence.
“If you’re out there week to week grinding it out in the $10,000 events ... it’s a pretty tough existence for several years,” acknowledged Hazlett, who reached a peak ranking of 260 in the world.
Then, there’s the loneliness and occasional contentiousness of a sport where boys tend to play nicer than girls — “the men are a little bit better about battling and getting along afterwards. The girls are a little more cutthroat,” said Hazlett, who was still able latch on with a small sorority of American players. They traveled together and cut costs together, sharing condos and car rides and fixing meals together instead of eating out.
Her career as a pro ended in a hospital bed in Veracruz, Mexico, where she had developed full-body cramps after a match and was supposed to leave shortly later for tournaments in Japan.
“That’s basically when I decided I needed to go home and re-evaluate things,” said Hazlett, who endured three knee surgeries before even launching her pro career. “I felt like God was trying to tell me something. I was physically wore down, mentally beat up.”
The doldrums were temporary. The zest for the sport overrides the dark days for Hazlett, who’s also worked in player development on a larger stage through part-time assistance with the USTA.
Part of Hazlett finds it tough to believe that, by association, she once flirted with the pinnacle of the game. She can lay claim to beating three-time Grand Slam quarterfinalist Maria Kirilenko and also swiped a doubles victory from Samantha Stosur, the 2011 U.S. Open singles champ and former world No. 1 in doubles.
“Now, I definitely don’t feel like I was that good,” Hazlett said. “But to know that I competed with those people years ago, that’s pretty neat.”
Contact Brendan Perkins
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