Break point

Tayler Davis passed up a chance at a payday playing professional tennis. She hasn’t looked back since.

Mary Zheng/Staff

Tayler Davis’ serve is an act in two parts: anticipation and violence. She bounces the ball four times against the ground, and tosses it skyward. The ball is still. In moments, it will be smashed and forever lost amidst a cacophony of groundstrokes and volleys.

Her body hesitates, coils and snaps. She uses the power in her legs to fire the serve towards her opponent, Ellen Tsay of Stanford. Tsay, undaunted, whips a return. A rally ensues, until Tsay charges to the net and flicks her racket. The ball, spinning too quickly for the eye to see, bounces on the opposite side of the net once, and then again. It is a drop shot executed perfectly. Davis grimaces, tilting her head back. She pivots quickly to pick up the balls that are scattered on her side of the net. Love-fifteen.

Ray Davis is not smiling.

Ray is a well-built man, his massive shoulders monuments from his days as a cornerback at San Jose State. His face looks vaguely familiar and authoritative, underscored with a dark moustache. He leans forward slightly in his seat.

Tayler, his oldest daughter and a junior at Cal, is on the verge of elimination at the Northwest Regional Championships. After dropping the first set, she has lost her lead in the second and faces a 5-4 deficit.

Davis serves again. The power is enough to keep Tsay away from the net. Davis remains at the baseline. Her feet firmly planted, she continues to shell Tsay with a barrage of forehands. Neither player is willing to deviate from rifling the ball back to her opponent’s opposite corner. Finally, Tsay wilts. Her forehand sails past the end line. Fifteen-all.

Davis turns her back to the court, bouncing up and down on her feet. Her style is more NBA than WTA. She slumps in a chair before the match, bobbing her head to Rick Ross’ “Blowing Money Fast.” The white shine of her Beats headphones matches the gleam off her white watch.

Davis the person resembles Davis the tennis player. Her game is more talent than technique, more swagger than structure.

“Tayler’s strength is her athleticism,” says Cal coach Amanda Augustus. “She’s slowly developing into an all-court player.”

Tsay, one of the top freshmen in the country, shows no emotion on the court. It seems Tsay is an excessively competent person who chose to play tennis. She crafts well-constructed points and has frustrated Davis all match long at the net.

Soon after her third serve, it is Davis who comes to the net. Tsay is not prepared. Davis flips a beautiful backhand volley. Tsay scrambles and ticks it just over the cord. Waiting, composed, Davis smacks the ball out of the air, this time with a forehand. Tsay turns and watches it fly by. Thirty-fifteen.

Davis and Tsay have played many times before. The fact that they are two of the top female tennis players from northern California creates the inevitability that they have met somewhere in the realms of junior tennis.

“Playing someone who I’d played in juniors is always a little difficult,” Davis says. “I forget that I’m a different player. It’s a different game now.”

Although rivals, Tsay and Davis took divergent paths. Davis went to high school in San Jose, Calif. Tsay graduated from an online high school that gave her the flexibility to spend most of her time playing — and winning — tennis matches on tour.

This is what makes Tayler Davis distinct. She is not simply a great tennis player; she is a person who happens to be very good at tennis. Her mother, Patrice, made sure this was the case.

Patrice balked at sending Tayler into the tennis world. Pro tennis players log countless hours in Sheratons and Wyndhams in cities like New Haven, Conn. and Carlsbad, Calif., struggling to break even. Davis’ family is now an ubiquitous presence, both courtside and in her life.

“It’s relaxing to have them there,” Davis says. “They feel like they’ve done their job. We actually talk very little about tennis now.”

Tsay’s face shows no indication that she knows, or cares, about the score. Quickly after the serve, she puts Davis on the run. Davis is reaching shots, but barely. Tsay, finally, nails a backhand winner, hitting chalk. Davis would have no chance, even if the ball were a few feet in from the line, but Tsay is not a player who leaves anything to chance. Thirty-thirty.

Patrice Davis can speak from experience about the perils of a career in professional sports. Her brothers were top-notch basketball players. Raymond Townsend won a championship his freshman year at UCLA, yet played an unfulfilling three seasons in the NBA. Patrice believes that Raymond should have pursued a career in baseball, a sport in which he also starred. Tayler is aware of these experiences.

“By senior year (of high school), I didn’t want to do it anymore,” Davis says of her junior career. “My parents never really encouraged (going pro). Even if I wanted to, they wouldn’t have let me.”

Tsay shows no signs of discomfort, two points away from advancing to the round of 16. She handles Davis serve with ease. Tsay is in control of the point the whole way, and Davis’ backhand misses wide. Ray Davis grunts. Tsay has match point. Thirty-forty.

Davis’ college career has certainly been a success. Yet her rise has been less meteoric than her junior standing would suggest. Lauren Embree, the top recruit of 2009, has played in Grand Slam events and has made over $100,000 playing tennis. Davis has posted a solid 66-28 singles record at Cal and will vie for playing time on the second court.

But for Davis, there have been myriad benefits for circumventing this route and coming to Cal.

“The chances of making it are so slim, and you are giving up school,” Davis says of the pro lifestyle. “What are you going to do if you get injured? I don’t want to put all my eggs in one basket.”

The crowd is anxious. Davis, on the brink of elimination, takes her time. Tsay handles Davis’ serve with ease, and the two rally again. Eyes in the gallery are fixed on the ball. Back and forth. Back and forth. This time, Davis breaks first. The ball sails wide. Tsay and Davis both move towards the net. “Good match,” Davis says. It’s the first and only thing they will say to one another. Davis staggers back to her bench, defeated.

Following the match, Davis is inconsolable. She sobs, a towel over her head, exhausted both emotionally and physically. Tsay, perpetually humble almost to a fault, thanks the crowd for its support. The Cardinal faithful giggle, enthralled with their newest star.

Minutes later, Davis is out of the locker room, sitting with her father and her teammates in a shady grotto of the tennis complex.

This is a scene that could have never happened if Davis had not come to Cal. In professional tennis, there is no team. A coach is a paid employee. Every loss hurts not only emotionally but financially.

The team is not thinking about this distinction. Their minds are wandering, far from tennis. Someone cracks a joke.

Ray Davis throws his thick shoulders back and tilts his head upward, and a broad grin breaks across his face.