If you don’t follow tennis, Sadie Hammond may be the best athlete in Maine you’ve never heard of.

She lives in Belgrade and she has never won a high school match — in fact, she’s never even competed in one. With her, that’s not the goal.

“If she had been in the schoolgirl tournament, I don’t know that there’s anybody who could have taken a game off her,” said Don Atkinson, who, along with Cooper Higgins, runs the annual high school state singles tournaments.

Hammond is 16 years old, and this fall she’ll be a junior at Laurel Springs Prep School, an online school based out of California. She’s already getting serious interest from Syracuse, Georgia Tech, Purdue, Boston College and Wake Forest. That’s assuming, of course, that she doesn’t turn pro directly out of high school.

“When I turn 17, 18 will be the decider of whether I can go straight professional or go to college,” Hammond said. “If I’m top 300 in the world, then I’ll try to play pro. If not, then I’ll go to college and then, hopefully, after that, try to make it.”

And the chances of Hammond being in the world’s top 300 players within a couple years?

“I’d say a 50/50 chance, maybe,” she said, smiling. “In my mind, I really want it. I think if I just stay focused, I think I can do it.”

Oddly enough, neither Mike nor Amy Hammond played tennis until they were adults. But their daughter Sadie is currently ranked No. 3 in New England in the girls 18-under category and 161st nationally in girls 18U by the United States Tennis Association. Sadie’s younger sister, 14-year-old Bethany, is a left-hander who will be a freshman at St. Dominic this fall, and will likely be seeded in the state singles tournament next spring.

Sadie is exceptional and that could also be said for her advantages and her work ethic. Here’s how she describes her typical day:

“Wake up, have a good breakfast, do some schoolwork,” she began. “Then go to the court, warm up or work out beforehand. Eat lunch. Work out again. Go on the court. Work out again. Then eat dinner, do schoolwork, wake up and do the next thing every day.

“It’s something you just get used to. Traveling is just so much fun, but you have to work hard every single day, no matter how mentally or physically drained you are.”

It takes a team

Getting to the highest level means being able to travel to where the other players of similar or greater ability are playing. Hammond fully realizes that not every family can afford to fly to tournaments in this and other countries, or hire a private coach, or have the knowledge and money to set Hammond up with a Mr. World finalist to devise a training program.

“I’m very lucky,” Hammond said. “I feel very fortunate and blessed. Along with my team. They help me out tremendously and I couldn’t do it without them.”

When Hammond is talking about her “team,” she means Reggie Hodges (her coach), her parents, her sister and Will Smith — the former Mr. World finalist who now runs Better U Fitness in Brunswick.

Still, Hammond gives no sense of entitlement about any of this. She has a goal to turn pro and she wants to put in the work to get there.

“One of the important components about her game, and about her as a competitor, is that she works tremendously hard,” Hodges said. “If someone could make it on hard work alone, she would have done it already.

“She’s very self-motivated and driven. So you put those things together with her ability and I think you just keep trying to define and nurture a style of play that can potentially allow her to play at the highest level.”

Hodges usually travels with Hammond to her tournaments. At the end of July, she’ll be one of seven players representing New England in the Girls 18 National Team Championships in Claremont, Calif. Hammond was already a National Open finalist in St. Louis and won an International Tennis Federation Grade 4 doubles tournament in Plantation, Fla. with a teammate from Baltimore.

“She’s a really exciting talent,” Hodges said. “She does so many things well and she does so many things naturally. The exciting part of her game is that she has weapons in her serve and in her forehand and the way she strikes the ball off the ground.

“She takes the ball very early, sort of reminiscent of Andre Agassi. She plays very close up onto the baseline. I think some of that, in part, comes from playing indoors on really fast courts. She learned to do that by picking the ball off of a fast surface and the rest has been cultivated. Her movement is also very good and will continue to improve.”

Talent and drive

Hodges has worked with Hammond on both the mental side and developing her aggressive power game, but Hammond would probably have an aggressive power game if Mr. Rogers were her coach. It goes with her determined personality, not to mention a serve that has been clocked in triple digits.

“A year and a half ago, she was up over 100 mph,” Hodges said. “That’s at 15. She could serve the ball, in the court, at I think 102. I know she is now serving harder than that. What it is, I couldn’t tell you by the clock. She’s improved the amount of pace that she’s getting on her serve and continues to work on that and foster good habits with her motion.

“And mind you, she’s 16. So she’s going to get stronger.”

“I can’t think of anybody (in the high school tournament) who would hit 85 or 90,” Atkinson said. “That’s an exceptional number for a girl that age.”

The next step

Hodges believes Hammond has a chance to be in the top 300 or 400 by the time she makes the decision on whether to turn pro. He points out that any tennis player having a good couple weeks and reeling off six or seven straight wins — well, that’s a career-changer.

“The level of play isn’t that different, but understanding how to win at that level is the key,” Hodges said. “She’s played people now who are already that, and she’s played them tough. If she stays healthy and she keeps training at the level that she’s at, she’ll certainly see her opportunities to do it. If it’s not there for her at 17, 18, that doesn’t preclude her from doing it.”

What’s interesting when Amy speaks about Sadie as a tennis player is not what she says, but what she doesn’t. She’s not one of “those” parents, constantly projecting her child five steps ahead of where she is, blaming everyone else for the slightest thing that goes wrong and losing touch with reality. Amy says she doesn’t even have a preference on whether Sadie turns pro or goes to college.

“I think, in the end, we’ll know where she’s at, within these next couple of years, and be able to make our decision then,” Amy said. “Myself, I take it a day at a time for her. Wherever she’s going to end up, she’ll end up, and I guess you hope for the best and hope she stays injury-free and I think what will happen, will happen.”

Sadie is keeping her options somewhat open. She’s e-mailed coaches of some of the top 25 Division I tennis programs in the country, just to make sure she’s on their radar screen. She freely admits she loves challenges, and on the court, she’ll get her chance for that.

“She’s a better kid than she is a tennis player,” Atkinson said. “She and her sister are both great. Nice, nice kids.”

“I love the game,” she said. “Just because of my hard work, I got better to the point where I could compete on the national and international level. That’s all I want to do, is just play tennis.”

Matt DiFilippo — 861-9243

[email protected]

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