Mercedes “Sadie” Hammond admits tennis didn’t immediately come easily after she began playing the sport competitively at age 10.

But she’s been a quick study.

Now 17, the Belgrade native has lived and trained in Florida for more than a year and a half, competed in numerous professional tournaments, gained a world ranking and has accepted a full scholarship to continue her tennis career at the NCAA Division I level beginning this fall at the University of Tennessee.

“Ever since I started I’ve always been an aggressive player,” said Hammond, the daughter of Mike and Amy Hammond. “From the time I was 10 to 13 it wasn’t very pretty, errors all over the place, but with the help of my coaches and everyone else who helped me out, I’ve settled my game to where I’m aggressive but it’s under control.”

Mercedes “Sadie” Hammond visited the Knoxville, Tennessee, campus last November and originally turned down the Volunteers’ scholarship offer, only to reconsider after also expressing interest in Florida, Michigan, Virginia, Florida State and the University of Miami.

“I look for Sadie to contribute in both singles and doubles immediately,” said Mike Patrick, who coaches the Tennessee women’s tennis team with his wife, Sonia Hahn-Patrick. “With her tenacity I see her becoming a great player like a former player at Tennessee from the Northeast, Caitlin Whoriskey, who achieved All-America honors and was a finalist in the NCAA doubles.”

Hammond never played a high school tennis match in Maine — unlike younger sister Bethany, who as a freshman at Saint Dominic Academy of Auburn last spring reached the state singles semifinals.

Her early success in the sport prompted Hammond to focus on regional and national age-group competition, a move facilitated by attending high school through Laurel Springs Prep, an online program based in California.

“That allowed me to travel more because by that time I was competing on the national and international levels,” she said. “It’s just so flexible for me and really just so ideal.”

By the time Hammond — a hard-serving, 5-foot-7 right-hander with a two-handed backhand — approached her junior year of high school, the time was right to move to a more tennis-centric environment in an effort to determine if a professional career was in her future.

“It came very sudden,” said Hammond. “We had been discussing it for a while but not very seriously, and then there were a series of tournaments that we thought about going to, and it just went from there.

“My coach and I left Maine in September [2013], and we never came back,” she said.

Hammond and her coach, Reg Hodges, lived and trained from tournament to tournament for a brief time before settling in Gainesville, Florida. They have been based there when not pursuing a tournament schedule that has taken her to Canada, Colombia, Italy, Mexico and various U.S. locales.

After being ranked among the top amateur players in her age group nationally, she got as high as 1,254 on the International Tennis Federation women’s singles rankings in October 2014. Hammond also has been ranked 1,169th in doubles by the International Tennis Federation.

“Our migration to Florida allowed Sadie to have access to some of the best resources for development,” said Hodges. “She was faced with a number of obstacles during this journey: injury, the feelings of isolation that come from international traveling 11 months out of the year, the unfamiliar territory of professional competition while also managing academic responsibilities and, not to overlook, turning from 16 to 17.

“She met each of these challenging circumstances head on and conquered them with resolve and focus. This experience has graced her with confidence and been the key component to her improvement as a tennis player,” Hodges said.

While Hammond was gaining a professional tennis indoctrination, she also began thinking more about college and maintaining her amateur status.

“The rule is you can’t accept more than $10,000 [in prize money], and that’s to cover expenses,” she said. “If I were to make more than $10,000, I would have to decline it to keep my amateur status, or if I did that and wanted to sign pro, I could do that, but I’ve kept my amateur status.”

Hammond plans to enter professional events for the next few months, and last Friday, she won the 50K Indian Harbour Beach (Florida) Wild Card Tournament to earn a berth in the qualifying draw for the WTA Indian Harbour Beach tournament that begins Sunday.

“It’s been an incredible experience, and if I were to go back and do it again, I wouldn’t change anything,” said Hammond. “It’s been such a learning experience for me, and I see that since this is my second time around I’ve gained experience and am a little more mature, I know more what to expect.

“As far as the tennis, every match is competitive and you learn from the top players that they’re not going to give you anything. They play their best in the big moments, they handle the pressure, and I feel that’s something I’ve gotten a lot better at and has been a key to my development, especially this season,” she said.

That enhanced comfort level complicated Hammond’s decision to attend college. She began seriously looking into college options last fall.

“It was a very hard decision for me,” said Hammond. “It was hard to determine what my heart and what my gut were telling me, but I don’t think it had much to do with the tennis. It was really just what was best for me in my future and for my family.”

Hammond will major in business management at Tennessee with an eye toward eventually contributing to the family business, the Belgrade-based Hammond Lumber Co.

“One of my other life goals is to join my dad and the rest of the family in the company and help them out,” she said. “That’s something I’m very interested in doing.”

The Tennessee women’s tennis team finished just 11-15 overall and 3-11 in Southeastern Conference competition this spring but has totaled 23 top-25 finishes in the Division I national rankings under Mike Patrick, the winningest coach in program history.

“She is a tremendous athlete with a great deal of potential,” said Patrick. “I truly like her work ethic and dedication to the sport. Her love for the game will help our program in many ways.

“Sadie brings power and shot-making ability that will be exciting to coach,” he added. “We look forward to her having a great career at Tennessee.”

Hammond will be one of five first-year players joining the Volunteers this fall.

“Sadie embodies the tenacity and motivation a coach always hopes to cultivate in any athlete. This to me is her truest strength,” said Hodges. “She has a natural flare for striking the ball, something that was evident early on in her development. She sees the court very well and has excellent instincts for attacking and cutting an opponent’s time down. She has worked hard at developing her serve and forehand as weapons, and what can be overlooked because of those weapons is her quickness and court coverage. She is an excellent defender.”

And while a return to professional tennis may remain among Hammond’s long-range aspirations, she’s looking forward to life and tennis on the college circuit for the next four years.

“For now I’m really hoping to have a successful college career, I’m really thinking short term,” she said. “I may reconsider after college, but that’s my main focus right now. I’m really looking forward to competing in the SEC, and I feel like we can achieve things within the program that maybe they haven’t done before so we’ll dream big and play hard.”

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Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...