Of the many ways to build a collegiate tennis program, Greg Prudhomme's construction job at Grand Canyon University has been unique — or at least highly unusual.
The coach, now starting his seventh season with the Antelope women's team, built his first team around 61-year-old Sheila Johnson, a longtime high school math teacher who played at Arizona State and had a year of eligibility remaining. Inheriting the leftovers of a 1-14 team, Prudhomme needed all the help he could get.
His wife, Mandy, like Prudhomme a teaching pro, was a member of his second and third teams. And now his 16-year-old daughter, Tatum, has joined the program with all of the ability — but none of the attitude — typically associated with the sport's child prodigies.
Tatum, who played her first competitive match at age 6 and was going up against pro players at 14, became eligible for the second semester after completing high school via homeschooling. She's penciled in at No. 2 singles and No. 1 doubles for GCU, which is competing at the NCAA Division I level for the first time as part of the Western Athletic Conference. She won't turn 17 until late April, two days after the end of the season.
You might beat her, but know this: It will take everything you've got. She plans to be the last one standing.
"I don't miss," Tatum says, confident in herself without sounding cocky. "They can't hit enough winners to beat me. They might hit more winners than I do, but I'll make a lot fewer mistakes. I'll make them fight as hard as they can."
The metronomic consistency of her baseline game has been known to get under the skin of opponents unwilling to slug it out with her for three hours. The secret to her success is old-fashioned hard work, drilling on the fundamentals until shotmaking becomes second nature.
Even with tennis pros for parents, she insists she's doing it her way.
"I'm out here for me," says Tatum, whose game has been fine-tuned by her family's summer trips to Germany, where she has been exposed to a high level of competition as well as the clay courts that favor baseliners who can hit all day.
"My dad doesn't push me. I do it because I love it. I'll take a day off, but I always want to be out on the court."
BYU-Hawai'i, a former Pacific West Conference rival of GCU that has dominated women's tennis in Division II for years, offered her a full athletic scholarship. Greg and Mandy Prudhomme gave their blessing.
"We said, 'Go ahead and do it,'" Greg says, noting that Tatum's entire career at GCU will be spent during the school's provisional Division I period, when the school is ineligible for postseason play.
"That didn't matter to her," he says of the restriction. "She said, 'What's one tournament at the end of the season? GCU is a great school, and why would I go play for a different coach?'"
Why, indeed? The Prudhomme family runs Paseo Racquet Center in Glendale, a beautiful outdoor facility that doubles as the Antelopes' home base, so court time is never an issue. And with the way her father preaches attitude and effort — ahead of wins and losses — Tatum knows things will be kept in balance as she improves.
"If I could put her on the (women's) tour right now, I wouldn't," Greg says. "She's too young and it's too early. I don't want her burning out before the age of 20.
"We could have made her better sooner, but we purposely held the reins back. As it is, she finished high school a year and a half early and will graduate from college at 20. She'll have time (for pro tennis) at a later age, when she's more mature."
Tatum seems plenty mature already, sometimes surprising her teammates with her fluent German. The Antelopes are like a mini-United Nations, with six of the nine players on the women's team from overseas: France, Spain, India, the Netherlands and Slovakia (two players).
The European way of developing players' skills before feeding them a steady diet of competition agrees with Tatum.
"You need to know how to win matches," she says, "but you need to know how to play tennis first. Your game needs to be fully developed."
That philosophy also has been passed down to siblings Autum, 14, and Liam, 10, who could become Antelopes, as well, before long.
"In America, there's so much emphasis on quick success," says Greg, 43, who played at Arizona State and Arizona and still competes at the semi-pro level. "There's not as much patience. The Europeans are not so attached to the status and the rankings. They develop as players.
"People (in the U.S.) want to win all the time, but you have to look beyond tomorrow. There's a lot to learn, and losing is part of that. You need to learn how to lose properly, so that you get stronger from it."
His oldest daughter won't go looking for those lessons, however. They'll have to find her.
"I haven't lost in doubles in two years," says Tatum, who will pair with junior Priscilla Annoual, a Peoria product and the team's No. 1 singles player. "My goal is to make it through the season without losing any matches."
The GCU women open the season on Jan. 31 at New Mexico. Typical of teams new to Division I, they will have only one home match, on March 31 against Idaho.
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