The Herald-Tribune Sunday Newspaper

Herald-Tribune - Mic Huber - August 23, 2015

Now that Nikki Yanez has proven that she is a fast learner, there is no telling what she might accomplish in the world of sports.

Less than one year after taking up gymnastics, at age 7, Yanez won a state title. Two months later she added a region title. And after capturing another state title the next year, little Nikki decided to spread her wings by trying other things.

A little more than two years after turning to tennis, Yanez, now 11, has put herself on the sport’s radar around the country by winning the USTA 12-Under national tournament title.

Now Nikki is starting to dabble in mixed martial arts. Maybe Ronda Rousey should begin to worry.

Nikki Yanez serves during a practice session at Twin Lakes Park. “My mom won’t let me compete yet,” shrugs Yanez, who says she is intrigued by Rousey’s strength and power, and the excitement the MMA star generates. “Hopefully, when I am older.”

Maybe MMA will be in Nikki’s future, but it is tennis that is currently commanding the present of the home-schooled Sarasota resident.

After overwhelming opponents her age in local and state level tournaments, Yanez turned the heads of the tennis establishment recently by winning the national 12s title. Knocking off the No. 1, No. 4 and No. 5 seeded players along the way, Yanez took her
game to a new level.

That kind of success can open doors. Prominent coaches are beginning ring the front bell, eager to get a foot in the entry way and have a chance to work with an athletic girl who has shown she knows how to win matches.

Yanez established herself as a threat to take the tournament title in Alpharetta, Georiga, by beating top-seeded Brooke Theis in the third round. She then fought back from being down in three straight matches to get to the final, where she knocked off fifth-seeded Rachel Arbitman 7-5, 7-6 (11-9).

In the fourth-round, Yanez lost the first set but then won 12 of the final 15 games to advance. In the quarterfinals, Yanez wasdown 4-1 in both sets but won 7-6, 7-5. Then, in the semifinals, she found herself down 6-2, 3-1 before turning the match around and winning 2-6, 6-3, 6-3.

“I calmed myself down and tried to think about what I needed to do. And I did it,” Yanez explained.

Maybe more to the point, Yanez was prepared to take care of business because of the way she trains, relying on a combination of strength, stamina, balance and footwork. “I think Nikki may be a better gymnast than she is a tennis player,” says her father, Paul Yanez, who coaches his daughter and maps out her training and nutrition.

Team Yanez takes the road less traveled when it comes to training. In fact, they are so far off the beaten path that they are blazing a new trail.

Not only have they eschewed the tennis academy path — they currently practice on a couple well-worn hard courts near Twin Lakes Park in Sarasota — but they call upon past success in gymnastics to build for the future.

It is that gymnastics background that has served as the foundation for her tennis success. Focus, balance, footwork and core strength are the building blocks. Instead of hours on the tennis court hitting shot after shot, Yanez turns to power gymnastic exercises, using equipment in the family garage to tone her body and mind.

“We have to take a different approach because we don’t have coaches out there on the court for five hours,” Paul Yanez says. “We have to come at it from a different angle.” That includes Nikki eating eight meals a day in an effort to build size and strength. Standing 5-feet-4 and weighing 117 pounds, Yanez hardly looks like an 11-year-old. And she doesn’t think like most pre-teens when she speaks about her goals.

“My goal every day is to be bigger, stronger, faster, to become a better athlete,” she says. “To achieve that, I have to have a well-balanced diet that provides me the energy to succeed.

“With my next big tournament (Eddie Herr) in December, I am going to try and gain as much size and muscle as possible. Then, two weeks before the tournament, trim down to my best size for competition. My goal is to gain five pounds of muscle before the end of the year.”

The goal when she started playing tennis was much more simplistic. Yanez liked the trophies.

When her brothers began playing tennis and started to bring home trophies, Nikki wanted to do the same. Gymnastic events were held a few times a year but tennis tournaments can be found almost weekly.

“I love the sport so much,” Nikki says about taking up tennis. “It was fun and I liked playing. And I get trophies.”

She is up to 32 tennis trophies now and dad, looking to the future, didn’t mind the move from the gymnastics mat to the tennis court.

“I saw exactly what happened, she was going to outgrow gymnastics,” said Paul Yanez, pointing out that her maternal grandfather stood 6-foot-5. “She was going to be too big. When she saw me working with her older brothers, she wanted to be a part of that.” Today tennis is truly a family endeavor, much the same path Monica Seles took when her father (Karolj) and brother (Zoltan) bore the responsibility of her training. At the national tournament, Nikki’s father handled coaching duties and big brother, Anthony, 17, served as hitting coach.

During the time on the practice court, Anthony and Vincent, 13, who has made the finals of the last five tournaments he has played, work out together.

“The whole family is involved,” Nikki says. “That’s what makes tennis so fun.” Chances are the team will grow in the future. In two weeks Yanez will head to the USTA National Training Center in Boca Raton to take part in a two-day camp for elite players. Realizing his daughter has arrived at a critical point in her development, Paul Yanez plans to ask a lot of questions.

“We have never been there, so we don’t know what to expect,” he says. What he does know is that the gymnastics training and time on the trampoline, a 3-1 ratio versus time on the court, has worked so far. Spending time on a 4-inch beam can do a lot for balance and focus.

“It will save you because you will see when you are off-kilter,” he says. “She is learning tennis more through position and footwork.”

Nikki Yanez has made huge strides is a short time using that method. And if past performance is a predictor of future success, there may be no stopping her.

Paul Yanez takes a break with his daughter, Nikki, after a practice session.

Nikki shows off the flexibility she has developed through training as a gymnast.

Nikki poses with her brothers Vincent, and Anthony, also standout tennis players.