Ally Baker's Teenage life is as typical as Kelly Osbourne's, but one day a week the 16-year-old tennis phenom lets down her hair, puts on her blue jeans and heads to the mall. No bench presses, no footwork exercises, no wind sprints—just an afternoon of shopping and greasy grub at the food court. "See," she says, "I can be a normal teenager, too."
During the other six days Ally plays, thinks and talks tennis. She spends half the year at the Evert Tennis Academy in Boca Raton, Fla., and the other half on the road competing in tournaments and visiting family in her hometown of Raleigh. The 5'11" lefthander hasn't been in an academic classroom for almost three years, instead getting lessons, homework and exams by mail from a Chicago home-schooling center. "I like not having to go to school every day," says Ally, who is working at the level of a high school junior. "The great thing about being at an academy is that you're able to go straight from tennis to fitness and back to tennis again. You don't waste any time."
At 11 Ally was blowing away the competition in Raleigh, so she and her parents began making 12-hour, round-trip drives to ACE Tennis Academy in Atlanta, training there two weekends a month for two years. "ACE was amazing," she says, "but the travel wore me down." To allow Ally to focus on tennis, the Bakers bought a house near Boca Raton in the spring of 2000. Since then she has ranked among the top three in the U.S. Tennis Association's 14-, 16-and 18-under divisions.
In August she made her professional debut at the U.S. Open, losing her first-round match to Elena Likhovtseva, 27, of Russia (ranked 38th in the world at the time) in three sets. Last month she signed with the sports management company SFX.
Like many devoted high school-age athletes, Ally has dealt with injuries (she had two knee surgeries and broke her ankle, all before her 15th birthday), growth spurts (she grew eight inches in a 1�-year span when she was 14 and 15) and a grueling schedule. When she's not on the road, her typical day at the Evert Tennis Academy, which is co-owned by IMG, includes four hours of on-court training, two hours of fitness and four hours of schoolwork—with an hour of Friends and The Cosby Show reruns jammed in.
"I try to go back to Raleigh five or six times a year and see old friends and go to high school football games," says Ally, who has no immediate plans to pursue a college degree. She may be missing out on the typical high school experience, but she's satisfied with the path she's taken. "If everything ended today," she says, "it would have all been worth it."