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In the 1980s, while he worked as an instructor at Nick Bollettieri's famed tennis academy in Bradenton, Fla., Sekou Bangoura took meticulous mental notes. As he fed balls to the likes of Andre Agassi, Monica Seles and Venus Williams, Bangoura noticed the subtleties that separated the future champions from the other kids. But he also studied the hothouse flowers who never bloomed, the thousands of teenage prospects who--beset by injury, bad luck or burnout--never became pro players.
Years later, when his own son, Sekou, known to all as Junior, showed exceptional talent for smacking a tennis ball and started winning tournaments as early as age six, the father recalled what he had learned at Bollettieri's. To reduce the intense focus on tennis, he supplemented his son's training with golf, chess and piano lessons. "It was like cross-training," says the elder Bangoura, a native of Guinea, who speaks with a West African lilt. "If we diverted time instead of being on the courts for eight hours, it was going to keep Junior fresher."
The plan either backfired or succeeded spectacularly. In tennis Junior, now 14, is ranked No. 4 nationally in the Boys' 14 age group. He is a prodigiously talented all-court player, blessed with a nimble set of hands and a devastating return game. On the clay courts of the Bradenton club that his father founded, Junior practices with, and routinely beats, college players. His one glaring weakness is his serve, but once he fills out and adds some height to his 5'3" frame--and his size 8 1/2 shoes suggest that day will soon be at hand--it's not hard to envision him reaching the highest level.
The problem, if that's the right word, is that Junior's other interests never lagged far behind. By eight he had won a national AAU golf tournament for his age group. Though he doesn't play enough tournaments to be ranked nationally, Junior, a seven handicapper, has been invited to compete in the Junior World Golf Championships in San Diego in July on an exemption from the Tiger Woods Foundation. (At the 2004 world juniors he shot a pair of 73s.) His drives routinely travel 260 yards, and his short game benefits from the same touch he exhibits on the tennis court. Welby Van Horn, a former professional tennis player and coach, watched Junior reach the quarterfinals of the Easter Bowl near Palm Springs, Calif., last month. Van Horn also watched Junior hit balls on a range. "Honestly, I was more impressed with his golf than his tennis," says Van Horn. "Every ball was dead straight."
There's more: As a 10-year-old, Junior won the Florida state chess championship for his age group and achieved a national ranking of No. 40. (He now plays mostly on his laptop.) After a few years of weekly piano lessons, he was able to perform flawless versions of Beethoven's F�r Elise and Scott Joplin's The Entertainer. "He has something innate," his teacher, Nancy Bjorklund, says wistfully. "If he had more time, he would just be phenomenal."
By three o'clock each afternoon, as his classmates at the Out-of-Doors Academy saunter out of school fiddling with their video iPods, Junior is on the course or court, beginning an elaborate regimen that won't end until he knocks off for bed at 9:30. He has no cellphone or Gameboy--"Kids get addicted to that so easily," says Dad--and can't recall the last television show he saw. Still, Sekou and his wife, Cheryl, an insurance company representative, are determined to make sure that Junior doesn't completely sacrifice his adolescence. This year as a freshman he played on the school's golf and tennis teams, though it often meant beating vastly inferior opposition. "Being part of the team," says Junior, "was what made it fun."
His father knows that, inevitably, Junior will pick one pursuit, and the rest will be downgraded from passion to diversion. But having witnessed the focus of those kids at Bollettieri's who never made it to the big time, Sekou figures the more options his son has, the better. "There's an African proverb," he says. "When you build a house, build it with more than one door. That way, when a lion comes in the front door, you have other ways to get out."