Daniel Island teen Shelby Rogers has gone from Family Circle Cup ball girl to tournament participant

Shelby Rogers was a ball girl at the Family Circle Cup. This year, the United States Tennis Association's Outstanding Junior Girl will be taking part in the tournament.

The women from Slovakia, Slovenia, Australia and Arizona should have it so convenient.

"Yeah," Daniel Island's Shelby Rogers said of her participation in this week's Family Circle Cup, "it's pretty nice to be able to run back to your house if you forget something."

A spot in the main draw at one of the most prestigious events on the Women's Tennis Association tour is a dream come true for an 18-year-old who embraced the sport the same year the Family Circle Cup came to her hometown from Hilton Head. A ball girl in 2001, Rogers was chosen to present flowers to inaugural Charleston winner Jennifer Capriati.

"That was a really special moment," Rogers said. "Being on center court with a packed stadium and just being there up close

and seeing all the best players play was so awesome."

So no surprise last year when Rogers turned pro, turning down college tennis opportunities at North Carolina, Clemson and Georgia.

"I've wanted to be a professional tennis player ever since I started playing," said Rogers, a graduate of First Baptist School in Charleston. "That was the goal."

She is fiercely competitive, whether it comes to bowling (lost to coach Bryan Minton last week), laser tag (teamed with Minton for victory) or video games (better bring your A-game). She credits those closest to her for helping develop that spirit.

Rogers, currently ranked No. 325 on the WTA Tour, has worked with Minton since 2001. She gets high-level athletic advice from her stepfather, Jim Gabrish, a former Citadel football All-American. Rogers credits her older sister Sabra for the competitive streak. Support from her mom, Starley, goes way back.

But it sounds like this kid had the gifts all along.

"Shelby has worked very hard for this for many, many years," Starley Gabrish said. "We are thrilled. We are excited. We are anxious. And we believe in her."

Sabra Rogers, 22, played tennis at Emory University. Shelby tagged along as a toddler to watch her sister's youth matches.

"We've always been really close," Sabra said. "With sisters, there's always that competitive nature. She followed in my footsteps but then took it to a whole different level."

Jim Gabrish was stunned by Shelby's tournament poise as a 10-year-old. He bounced around the NFL as a tackle, spending time with the San Francisco 49ers, Miami Dolphins and Cleveland Browns and immediately drew comparisons.

"I tried to explain to her mom that I met people in the NFL like Joe Montana and Dan Marino and Bernie Kosar and players who just have that 'it' thing and are a step above," Gabrish said. "I told her Shelby had the same thing. She just had that drive and ability to motivate herself."

Minton saw it, too.

"She came to our academy at the Family Circle in 2001," said Minton, 39, and a former College of Charleston tennis player. "I could see she was going to be a good player that first day. She just seemed to have a really good attitude. She was already swinging at the ball and looked like she was having fun."

Minton has worked with Rogers ever since. She played a Family Circle Cup qualifying match last April, losing to Christina McHale, a fellow American. A decade of junior success peaked last August with an invitation to the U.S. Open as national junior champion. Rogers took veteran tour player Shuai Peng to three sets in New York City before losing, 6-7, 7-6, 6-3.

"Great match. You played well," Peng said in greeting Rogers at the net.

The U.S. Open is still a wonderful blur of tennis royalty and skyscrapers.

"Probably the greatest experience I've had thus far in my life," Rogers said. "Just being around those kind of players. I have a hard time putting it into words. Walking out of the locker room and seeing Roger Federer. Seeing (Rafael) Nadal practice on center court. Practicing next to players like Venus Williams. It just motivates you and makes you want to work that much harder to get back there."

Rogers tuned up for the Family Circle by winning two matches last week at an International Tennis Federation tournament in Pelham, Ala.

Rogers, per typical Minton tutelage, spent some of her down time studying tennis videos-- mostly of top men's players -- and reading about the sport.

"We try to keep things constantly interesting," Minton said.

Rogers loves it. Loves tennis. Loves pressure. Loves big crowds.

It all goes back to that first Family Circle Cup in Charleston, and the little 8-year-old who handed Jennifer Capriati flowers in 2001.

"She feeds off a crowd and she's never been intimidated by the camera," stepfather Jim Gabrish said. "Maybe it's because of her exposure to the Family Circle Cup early on. She was never afraid of the camera and bright lights and I think a lot of it has to do with all that early Family Circle Cup experience."

Just down the street from home.

Reach Gene Sapakoff at 937-5593.