As the mid-April sunlight fades from the Charleston, S.C. evening sky, the artificial lights of the Family Circle Cup direct all attention to the match on center court. There Serena Williams, 5-foot-10, 145 pounds, one of the most well-known and publicized players in the world, is facing Kelly McCain, a 5-foot-2, 110-pound first-year professional with the nickname “Lil’ One.”
First set: 6-1, Williams. Second set: 6-0, Williams. Kelly McCain is certainly not in Durham anymore.
A little more than four months later, McCain, who turned pro after her sophomore year at Duke, is even further removed from Ambler Tennis Center. What would be a year of independence from the constraints of West or Central Campus as a senior is instead beginning with a trip to the U.S. Open for McCain Aug. 30 in New York.
After a sophomore season that included a No. 1 national singles ranking, McCain had established a 67-11 singles record as a Blue Devil and attained the credentials to make a run at professional tennis.
“Having won one of the Grand Slam tournaments [the 2002 ITA Riviera All-American], Kelly didn’t want her best tennis to be behind her,” Duke head coach Jamie Ashworth said. “I knew we wouldn’t have her for four years.”
McCain has always measured her success in titles and rankings. A Florida state championship with her team at Saddlebrook Academy, the No. 1 singles slot as a Duke freshman and that college Grand Slam title, which propelled McCain in her decision to turn pro, were all marks of her tennis success.
Now, as she prepares to play the U.S. Open, a title will no longer determine success.
“If Kelly were to go to the U.S. Open and win three matches and then lose, that is a great, great tournament,” Ashworth said.
Although turning pro was always a goal of McCain’s, the transition has not been easy. She made a strong debut on the USTA Pro Circuit with a quick sweep of the $10,000 event in Eugene, Ore., but McCain has also had to cope with losing, albeit in some of the top professional tournaments.
“It’s definitely a learning process,” McCain said. “At this level everyone is so good. It’s just a matter of believing you can do it.”
The jump from college athletics to the professional ranks is sometimes perceived as glamorous in large market sports such as basketball, but in tennis, jumping straight to the U.S. Open stage is not an option. Success only comes through slowly working up the ladder in smaller tournaments.
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“It’s going to take two to three years to make money,” Ashworth said. “[McCain] is right on that line right now.”
Instead of receiving alluring shoe endorsements and big signing bonuses, McCain has struggled with the little things—such as travel, stringing rackets and scheduling practice—which were all arranged for her as a Blue Devil. Now, McCain’s support comes from her family. Her uncle acts as her financial backer and her father as her coach.
“In college, you don’t have to think about everything,” McCain said. “Now I have to worry about money and travel. You’re never flying round-trip. It’s hard with all the change fees and such.”
With a year and a half of professional experience, McCain is still close to her Duke roots. Her relationship with Ashworth has evolved into a supporting friendship kept strong by Instant Messenger conversations because McCain usually travels three weeks a month and trains a fourth week near her home in Tampa, Fla. Fellow former Blue Devil Ansley Cargill will be joining McCain at the U.S. Open this month if she advances through the singles qualifying rounds.
“I know some of our past players will be in New York [for the US Open],” Ashworth said. “When you have a couple of players out there, you can still carry that family atmosphere with you.”
And just as the her collegiate Grand Slam victory at Riviera propelled her jump to the pros, a strong showing later this month in New York could be an equally critical next step.