The making of a prodigy
Freshman Connie Hsu’s evolution from Taiwanese national champ to potential pro
April 8, 2011, 3:26 am · Updated April 8, 2011, 12:00 am·
What does a tennis prodigy look like?
Inside Penn’s Levy Tennis Pavilion, a beaten opponent gasps for air, her pores leaking sweat as if to cry for mercy. The prodigy gives none.
Instead, she tortures the opponent with swift, violent wrist flicks that send balls slicing and sizzling over the net. She darts nimbly across the court, fluidity at its finest, each movement precise and purposeful.
Her expressionless face gives little acknowledgment to the opponent, instead zeroing in on targets — the centimeters above the net, the baseline, the 2x2 foot corner-court box — and ignoring all surroundings. Ignoring the time, the location, the score, the gazing onlookers, the expectations, the future.
This is what a tennis prodigy looks like: 19-year-old Penn freshman Connie Hsu. But this prodigy is hidden in the outskirts of campus, buried underneath the uninviting shell that is Levy Pavilion. And this prodigy may not be a Penn gem for long — the option to leave college for a pro career is tantalizing.
It’s February 25, a numb Friday afternoon. Students are enjoying the rush of the weekend’s kickoff, while the Penn Athletics world prepares for the men’s basketball team’s 7 p.m. tipoff at the nearby Palestra.
Inside the tennis center, Connie Hsu is in her element, focused on that day’s domination, keeping the machine churning.
A life of tennis Steven Hsu, looking on from his usual spot on the balcony above court number one, doesn’t gawk at his sister’s 23-2 fall record — both losses coming in national tournaments to nationally ranked veteran players — and he isn’t surprised by her top-25 singles ranking. As Connie dismantles St. Joseph’s No. 1 Casey Robinson, 6-0, 6-2, Steven doesn’t fall out of his chair in awe; he falls asleep in it.
“She’s been doing this her whole life,” he says before his first-set nap time, “so it’s routine.”
Before facing the Hawks, the prodigy herself answers questions about her sensational play with no more than a few sentences, always followed by a sheepish laugh.
Her teammates are used to it. Doubles partner Alexa Ely recalls one particular preseason van ride in which seniors badgered freshmen about their interests.
“She kept saying, ‘tennis, tennis, I love tennis,’” Ely recounts, laughing. “It took us like 45 minutes to pry something out of her.”
Nope, prodigies don’t have time for other hobbies. Time spent away from tennis is time wasted.
At this point, the powerful backhands and whirling forehands — which on this day leave Robinson gassed by the fourth game of the first set — are ingrained in Connie's muscle memory, the product of a lifetime of swing after swing after swing. She plays like average humans might eat cereal or brush their teeth.
Hsu's swing earned her an under-10 national championship as an 8-year-old in her native Taiwan. Then it carried the Hsus along for the ride, motivating them to leave a family business behind in Taiwan to find what Steven calls a “better sports environment” in America.
“The culture in Taiwan is very education-centered,” he explains. “Someone who wants to pursue a professional tennis career is very unorthodox.”
The move to Cincinnati and then San Antonio, Texas, unleashed Connie’s game. Tennis in Taiwan meant constantly searching for a wall, any wall, to hit against — Connie’s favorites stood in her bedroom and the local park. Tennis in America brought five hours of daily practice, demanding tennis academies and grueling national tournaments.
Different country, same result: Hsu became an under-12 American national champion in 2004. During the course of nonstop tours around the junior circuit, she met Ely, an Asheville, N.C., native.
Against St. Joe’s, the two iron out some early mishaps to cruise at No. 1 doubles, 8-1, thanks in large part to Connie’s fearsome forehand. The lefty stroke wasn’t always so strong.
“She used to have two hands on both sides and everything was completely flat. Now obviously she’s let go,” says Ely, who, at 15, lost to 11-year-old Connie. “She’s added a ton of spin. She’s stronger, faster — everything’s just better.”
But, at least by Penn standards, Connie may have become too good. Before college, she was ranked in the 300s on the Women’s Tennis Association tour. Even with a stellar freshman class, "none of us are nearly as good as her,” Ely admits. And coach Sanela Kunovac concedes that sometimes Connie needs to “challenge herself against herself.”
Chiou-Kuo Hsu, Connie’s father, plants himself in a nearby chair for the match's three hours and sternly watches his daughter go to work. Since leaving Taiwan, Chiou-Kuo has taken over as Connie’s full-time coach, while her mother skips her matches, busy “keeping the family afloat” as a housekeeper, Steven says.
Despite financial struggles, Steven continues, the family would consider suspending her education to pursue a pro career — her first test coming in tournaments this summer.
“It’s sort of late in tennis to start [after graduating] when you’re 22,” Steven explains.
Training a prodigy The mentor feeds her protégé ball after ball, eyeing her every move with a look that blends pride and curiosity. Kunovac and Hsu represent Penn tennis’ past and present. A decade ago, it was Kukovac, an immigrant from Bosnia, who was The Prodigy, opting to play professionally before a decorated Penn career.
During warm-ups, Kunovac showers her team with words of encouragement — Hsu the lone exception. No, Connie gets nitpicked to death:
“Don’t pop up too early! You’re lifting!”
“Get closer to the ball!”
“Be solid and carry through!”
It’s clear Kunovac cherishes her time with the Quakers’ latest prodigy, considering it might be short-lived — and it almost never came about. This past summer, Kunovac didn’t recruit Hsu as a realistic target as much as a “best case scenario.” But the two struck an immediate bond due to their similarities, allowing the first-year coach to score the upset over tennis power Baylor.
Her winning pitch? “I told her the truth,” Kunovac explains. “That we want to be one of the top programs, definitely in the Ivy League, maybe in the nation, and we can start with you. You can be a building block.”
The team (6-11, 0-3 Ivy) remains in rebuilding mode, but Connie continues to shine. She’s 39-2 after a 16-0 spring streak in which she hasn’t dropped a set, including 3-0 within the league. It hasn’t been easy, Kunovac insists, as “it takes an effort to not let your opponent get any.”
The coach, who trained with "eight of the top-10 women in the world right now" at Florida's illustrious Bolletieri Tennis Academy, says Connie, at 19, compares favorably with the sport's best at the same age. Kunovac even anointed Hsu the better Penn player: "she has more tools than I had," most notably a better serve.
Hsu’s biggest and perhaps only Ivy challenge will come this weekend at Harvard, where she faces the league’s next-highest ranked player, 18-2 freshman Holly Cao.
With such a fine product to mold, Kunovac has fixated on turning weaknesses into strengths, pushing the prodigy’s limits, fine-tuning the machine. Force yourself beyond your comfort zone, she’s told Connie. Hit slices, drop shots and overheads you wouldn’t normally hit; play the net to test your opponent and, more importantly, yourself. Aim for pinpoint accuracy inside a three-by-three box, then shrink that box.
“Work on precision, work on power, work on speed,” Kunovac continues. “Work on making her very, very, very tired and still demanding of her to hit those targets.
“You can always push somebody, right? Even if [it's] Roger Federer, you can try to break him and still make him hit the ball.”
Someday, opponents will routinely try to break Connie. Someday, roles will be reversed, and Connie will be the one sweating as the victim of the match rather than the aggressor.
That day — whether in the cozy confines of Levy Pavilion or in the national spotlight — is still to come.
“What flusters her?” Kunovac ponders. “Nothing so far. It’s yet to be seen, you know?”