Tennis: That's why Monique is unique

She is 14, a brilliant player and a great singer. And she knows it
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The Independent Online
BEFORE THE women's final at the Lipton Championships in Key Biscayne next Sunday the American national anthem will be sung, as always. But this time the plan is for the singer, instead of an opera diva or pop warbler, to be the latest American tennis phenomenon, the 14-year-old Monique Viele.

One reason Monique intends to sing is because they won't let her play. The Women's Tennis Association's restriction on girls under 18 being involved in more than a token number of minor events, introduced in the wake of Jennifer Capriati's spectacular burn-out, has hampered other bright youngsters, notably Anna Kournikova, who complied with the restriction, albeit reluctantly. But Monique's parents, Rick and Bernadette, intend to take the WTA to court because they claim their daughter is unique.

The word unique crops up repeatedly in the blurb starting to circulate about Viele, 5ft 9in, 9st 4lb, green eyes, brown hair. For one thing "Unique Monique" is considered a neat sales line for a youngster who has been marketed since IMG latched on to her at nine.

Monique's present coach is one of the top Americans, Rick Macci, who has been in charge of her at his tennis school in Pompano Beach, Florida, for the past 18 months. Capriati and the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, learned much from Macci, who jests: "I guess I am a `phenom' maker."

Here is Macci on his bright new pupil: "She is incredible. I am not going out on a limb when I say Monique is unique. She has a two-handed backhand as good as anybody in the game right now and she is big off the ground like all the top players. Her ability to hit on the run spells greatness."

Should you think that a bit over the top, here is Monique on the subject of Monique: "I have no limitations. I can do anything I want. I could beat Hingis and Kournikova right now. And if I didn't, then playing them would be just one step closer to beating them in the future. I do not just want to be No 1 player in the world, I want to be the greatest ever to play the game. That includes the men, too. I want to be greater than Pete Sampras."

Viele took up the game at seven when her father agreed to coach her if she could hit the ball against the garage door of their Colorado home 100 times without an error. Monique won the wager. The family moved to Coral Springs in Florida when she was nine to be close to the country's top academies.

She went first to the Nick Bollettieri school for 18 months, then the Evert Academy for another year before settling in with Macci. "They first brought her to me when she was nine," Macci said, "but at the time I had the Williams sisters and I was quite busy. She was just a little peanut then. When it didn't work out for her at Nick's or the Everts' she came back to me. About six months ago it became quite clear she would be the best one I had ever coached because of the total package this kid brings to the table.

"She has wonderful athleticism but most of all her competitive skills and determination to be successful are just incredible. Mark it down, this girl is going right to the top. She will be better than Jennifer, Venus or Serena because of the potential to keep improving.

"She trains five hours every afternoon but has other capabilities. She can sing to almost a world-class level already and her acting and modelling capabilities have attracted the attention of agencies and companies. Whatever she chooses to do, she does at such an astonishing level."

Monique's musical specialty is a Celine Dion-type rendering of "My Heart Will Go On" from the film Titanic, while wearing a slinky, strapless black dress. When she practises on the family tennis court alongside a swimming pool in the back garden of their home she cracks serves timed at 115 miles an hour, then for variation serves left-handed at 90mph. The formal training sessions are with men.

Though Viele (pronounced "Vee-lee") got no higher than sixth in any US age-group rankings, one former tour player who has watched her recently says: "She lacks Venus's speed and raw power but exhibits better hand- eye co-ordination. She generates significant pace on her serve and though her forehand has a small hitch she whips her backhand to any corner of the court at will."

Heeding his daughter's insistence - "I am ready now" - Rick Viele, a rich man through stocks and commodities, says: "We don't care if Monique plays on the main tour for free. They can give the money to charity or put it in a fund until she is 18. Monique is not playing for the money."

Bernadette Viele, an attractive blonde, warns that if the WTA do not allow her daughter to play top events before the US Open in September the family will take them to court. However, one conflict of interest looms. IMG, who represent the Vieles, are also the WTA's marketing agent.

In the meantime, we are about to find out whether Monique Viele can sing at a top tennis tournament. Whether she will actually be able to play in one for quite a while has to remain in doubt.