At the Sweetwater Oaks tennis club, a pair of ambidextrous young siblings are leading a new generation of court marshals
Tennis instructor Vladimir Obradovic was hesitant about starting a program for young children at the Sweetwater Oaks tennis club. He already had a successful program for teenagers, that he hosts five nights a week at the Longwood courts on Fox Valley Drive, and Vladimir wondered if he could handle what he feared would be a bunch of hyperactive grade-school kids with short attention spans.
But over the past three years, he received so many requests to start a program for children age 10-and-under that he finally decided to give it a shot during the fall of 2018.
“I was afraid it was going to be a big babysitting class,” says Vladimir, a native of Serbia who starred at the University of Florida and was a former Davis Cup teammate of Novak Djokovic, currently the world’s top-ranked player. “I was worried that I would be chasing them around, hoping they didn’t hit each other on the head with their racquets. But it turned out to be great. The kids enjoy being out there. They listen, they like to be challenged, and they’re full of good, positive energy.”
Among the 17 youngsters currently in the 10-and-under program are pint-sized siblings Alec (age eight) and Ivana Abram (age nine). They are as sweet and adorable as they are powerful and tenacious, and their tennis style is unlike anything Vladimir has ever seen.
Instead of hitting traditional forehands and backhands, the ambidextrous Abram kids hit forehands with both their right and left hands, and they can serve with both hands, as well. Their father, former Ohio State University tennis player Mark Abram, came up with the idea when he first introduced his children to the sport when they were four and five years old.
“With Alec, I put a racquet in both hands, and he did equally well on both sides,” Mark says. “I didn’t do that with Ivana. She tried using a two-handed backhand for a year, but she saw Alec develop and she wanted to try it. Within six months, she surpassed everything she did in that first year.”
The Abram family home had a screened-in patio, where Mark would toss balls to his kids, and they would hit shots against the wall. After about six months of practicing at home, Alec and Ivana were good enough to take tennis lessons and play on a full-size court.
“Our kids are very active, so we wanted to get them involved in tennis as soon as we could,” says mom Laura, who also acts as the family’s photographer. “From the get-go, they were excited. They always looked forward to tennis. They’re both very competitive, and they like working hard and getting results.”
When the Abram family decided to enroll their kids in the Sweetwater Oaks tennis program, Mark had to explain to Vladimir that he didn’t want him to change his children’s unique style of play.
“I was a little bit in shock when I first saw them play,” Vladimir says, “because I didn’t think it could work. But they’re making it
work. I was so impressed with how athletic they were, especially the little boy – he’s probably the fastest kid I’ve ever seen. We’ll see what happens as they get older, but right now, there’s no need to mess with that. It actually takes a lot of skill and helps them get to a lot of shots.”
Like his father, Alec also plays baseball and is on a nine-and-under travel team. Both siblings are also in a chess club and help out with a community garden. Unlike most kids their age, they have little interest in electronics – you rarely find them staring at a smartphone, television, or computer.
The family recently purchased a motor home to make it easier to travel to tennis and baseball events. Their first adventure was a five-day, 2,500-mile round trip to Texas for Alec and Ivana’s first national tennis tournament in late September.
“We’re fortunate to have two kids who play at the same level and love playing each other,” Mark says. “This is my vision: I know they’re going to get college scholarships. At this age, I can already tell they have that ability. If they can continue to like it and have no injuries, they might even have the option at 17 or 18 to go pro. But we won’t know until we get there.”
In the meantime, these adorable youngsters, who are in third and fourth grade, will continue to enjoy playing tennis with and against each other at Sweetwater Oaks.
“I like playing with my brother,” Ivana says. “He keeps me company, and if we ever have mixed doubles [at a tournament], I’ll get to be with him.”
“She’s a good player,” adds Alec, “and it’s fun to play with her.”
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