The first time Gabby Price had a tennis ball lobbed in her direction, she mustered all the strength a 4-year-old possibly could and sent the ball screaming back.

The ball made a beeline right at the head of Gabby's father, Marc, a former Penn State tennis player who hoped the game would be a way to connect with his daughter.

Marc promised himself that he wouldn't pressure her. If she gravitated toward tennis, fine. But if not, if she struggled to move on the court the way she needed to or if she didn't enjoy playing, that would OK, too.

But in that moment, in that one furious, undisciplined stroke of his daughter's tennis racquet, Price got his answer.

This kid was going to be special.

"I'll be honest -- I knew from Day 1, she had it," Marc Price says now, five years later.

Gabby Price is now 9.

She stands 4-foot-5 and weighs 67 pounds.

Barely able to clear the net with her line of vision, Gabby is much more disciplined than she was when she started playing. She has spent the better part of the past five years studying under Rick Macci, whose pupils have included Venus and Serena Williams, Jennifer Capriati and Andy Roddick.

But much like the father, Macci sees the potential for greatness in Gabby.

Even now at 9, even at 4-foot-5 and 67 pounds.

Even now when she can barely see over the net.

There's just something about her first step. About her quickness. About the way that she competes that makes Macci believe Gabby has the X Factor other players her age lack.

In Macci's words, Gabby has weapons.

"There's a lot of same qualities that I saw in Capriati at age 9 except Gabby is a little further down the road athletically," Macci says. "She's the best prospect I've seen in a long, long time in this country.

"At the end of the day, she's unbelievable ... to me, she has all the qualities to be the next great American player. There's no doubt."

But with great potential comes the risk of danger.

At age 9, Gabby Price has been classified as a tennis prodigy.

It's a title her parents don't take lightly and one that Gabby may not truly grasp -- yet.

She's too young to understand the ups and downs Macci has already told Gabby's parents that their daughter likely will experience. She's unaware of the backstory of Capriati, the Hall of Fame player now being cited in comparisons by Macci. She is almost certainly too young to comprehend the pitfalls that Capriati endured after becoming a Sports Illustrated cover girl at age 13.

But to hear her tell it, this is what she is she wants: To be the best.

"You can see she really has that passion and that this is something she really wants," Gabby's mother, Michelle, says in an interview on YouTube's THNKR network. "We don't want it for her -- she wants to for herself."

To many, though, Gabby's story becomes a cautionary tale: A young girl who constantly competes against -- and defeats -- players three or four years older and who has constantly been told by those around her that the sky is the limit for her and her game.

But to Gabby, none of that matters.

To her, tennis is a game she loves and not, at least to her, a lifestyle she's chasing. But even as a 9-year-old who comes off both confident and yet painfully shy in a telephone interview as her parents sit next to her to keep her calm, one thing becomes certain.

She's fearless of what lies ahead.

Ask her what it is like to be 9 to be already being featured on videos showcasing her talents and to be doing media interviews for stories chronicling her 5-year tennis pilgrimage and Gabby uses the word "awesome," saying she doesn't view such attention as pressure to be anyone but herself.

"It's fine -- it's not hard," Gabby says. "It's not hard. I love doing it."

Her journey, though, is just beginning.

***

Take her back to that moment on the court with her father when she was 4 and Gabby beams with pride how on that initial shot, she nearly took her father's head off with a screaming forehand.

Before that day, Gabby had never picked up a racquet and didn't know anything about the game. So there, on vacation, Marc used the occasion to see if his daughter had any inclination toward the sport he loved so much. "I just hit the ball as hard as I could," Gabby says.

But to Marc, there was something more than just the way Gabby had hit the ball. He sensed a level of athleticism he thought was special and an inner drive he knew was required if his daughter was going to have any sort of future in tennis.

Encouraged by what he saw, Price contacted Macci, asking if the long-time tennis instructor would take a look.

During the past 35 years, Macci has had countless parents call him, insisting their child has the makings of something special. He has grown skeptical of such praise, knowing often parents see their children differently than others would upon first inspection.

"Normally, when they say that," Macci says, "they're wrong."

But Macci agreed to see Gabby and almost instantly, he confirmed what Marc Price believed to be true.

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Again, it had taken one ball -- a simple lob from the service line -- for Gabby to make a believer out of Macci.

"She went at the ball like Ray Lewis on a blitz," Macci says.

There was an aggressiveness with the way Gabby went after the ball at age 4 that Macci hadn't seen in a long time. Yes, it was undisciplined and out of control, but still Macci saw promise.

Macci told Marc that if Gabby's passion could be harnessed, that unbridled enthusiasm could be priceless in the young player's development. If Gabby could learn the proper grips, if she got good backswings, if her body became biomechanically sound, there was no stopping her.

"I guarantee (if she does those things)," Macci told Price that day, "you've got a world class player here."

The journey was continuing.

***

Since then, tennis has become a staple for Gabby, who lives in New York with her family but travels to Macci's teaching academy in Florida every couple of months and receives instruction for 4-5 days at a time. Working with Macci has taught Gabby to play with her heart, using it as motivation to play beyond her diminutive size.

The rest of the time, Gabby works out with her father, playing tennis anywhere from 90 minutes to two hours five days a week and spending 3-4 hours a week in off-the-court training, jumping rope, running, in addition to doing push-ups and stretching exercises.

Price said tennis has never been something he has forced on his daughter. If she was going to play, it was because she wanted to. Sometimes, that meant the two spent 20 minutes on the court together. Sometimes it meant there were there for an hour. But the more time she spent on the court, the more she wanted to be there.

Michelle warned her husband not to push too hard. Even though he loves tennis, she feared that he would live vicariously through his young daughter.

Marc, though, didn't worry.

"She was very focused from a young age, even when she was 4," Marc Price says. "I'd be feeding her balls and I'd say, ‘You want to stop?' and she'd say, ‘I want to keep playing.'"

Even then, even before she learned to harness her enthusiasm or even before she learned how to keep score in a match, Gabby was drawn by the sport's ability to push herself. She loved the competitive nature of the game and the way it drew the most out of her.

Tennis also opened up her social circles, introducing her to new friends, all who shared a love of tennis. But deep down, there was one motivation pushing Gabby.

"I love to win," she says. "It's hard to lose, but I know I have to learn from my losses."

Between working with her father and with Macci, Gabby quickly learned what it meant to make the most of every point. When she'd play with Macci, he always asked the same question.

What's inside your chest?

Gabby's inner push had always set her apart from other players she competes against. Macci knew it was an invaluable quality that when used properly could create competitive distance between Gabby and those she played against.

Macci constantly pushed Gabby to draw from within, building on what appeared to be a natural tendency to go after the ball on every shot.

"I wanted to show how hard I can play," Gabby says. "I want to show that I never give up."

***

Gabby's inner push has carried over to the time she spends practicing with her father. Marc Price credits Macci for teaching him how to bring his daughter along and motivating her to do the things she may not want to.

Gabby insists she never wakes up, wishing she could live life as a normal 9-year-old rather than dedicating so much time to tennis.

But in practicing so much, she has learned the hardest part of game is pushing herself hard enough to avoid losing. It's a pressure that sports psychologist Dr. Alan Goldberg believes isn't necessarily healthy at such a young age.

While the desire to play and to succeed may be genuine on Gabby's part, Goldberg says too often the pressure to perform goes deeper than winning on the court.

Especially among young athletes being groomed for greatness.

"The pressure from the adults causes a significant amount of damage to the kids and ultimately fuels the kid's burnout," Goldberg says in a phone interview from his office in Amherst, Mass. "Every kid is hard-wired to make their parents proud and not to disappoint them."

Goldberg says when dealing with young athletes blessed with so much talent, proper parenting becomes critical. Too often, he said, failure in an athletic endeavor leads children feeling like they are letting their parents down, which, in turn, leads to traps of the children feeling that they are not as lovable as they would be if they constantly won.

"You get a kid like that on the court and they get up to serve and there is a hell of a lot at stake besides the match," Goldberg says. "And 9 years old is too damn early for kids to be that focused on being that good, being the best.

"It's just too early."

Already at 9, Gabby has sights set on greatness.

"My goal is the be the No. 1 player in the world," Gabby says matter-of-factly and without hesitation. "But you have to train really hard, you have to have a good attitude and you have to be focused."

Marc Price insists her aspirations are her own and that he and Michelle have done their best to not use success as a motivating factor for the way Gabby enjoys tennis.

Having heard Gabby consistently repeat her goals to be the best over the years, Marc has no doubt that she is serious on seeing her dreams reach fruition. Marc and Michelle have dedicated themselves to getting Gabby to that point.

But still there are challenges.

As much as they have seen tennis quickly become a big part of Gabby's life, Marc and Michelle Price understand her passion has to be balanced with other things.

They make sure she has down time and that she gives proper attention to her schoolwork. But they also see how far Gabby's game has come and the way she competes against girls who are 6 feet tall and 13 years old, and they believe Gabby possesses something they can't explain.

"It shouldn't be physically possible that she's doing that," Marc Price says.

But again, that's when Gabby's competitiveness kicks in.

Gabby arrives at national tournaments and sees who she's pitted against, often playing two age groups up from where she should be.

Before the match even starts, she knows what her competitor is thinking. She has seen opponents glance in her direction and laugh, thinking there is no way they're going to lose to a 9-year-old who can barely see over the net.

That's when she remembers what Macci always asks her.

What's in your chest?

"I know I've got a bigger heart than them," Gabby says.

Marc has been present for tournaments when Gabby beats an older competitor and sees the way they react once the match is over. Marc says Gabby's opponents have nothing to gain -- if they win, they've beaten a 9-year-old, but if they lose, their world comes crashing down.

"I've seen the tears from the girls and I see their father's face and he's just shaking his head," Marc Price says.
"Now a lot of them know who she is and when they play her, they know they're playing against someone who is determined and who has the heart of a lion.

"They know if they play her, it's going to be a challenge.

It's all part of the journey.

***

And yet, Gabby is still 9.

She has been compared to Capriati, who, like Gabby, was deemed a prodigy. After bursting onto the tennis scene, Capriati began to push, reaching the French Open semifinals by age 14.

After she won the Olympics at age 16 by defeating Steffi Graf in the gold-medal match, Capriati's life began to spin out of control. She experienced legal problems dealing with drug abuse, temporarily disappearing from the tennis world for 14 months before mounting a furious comeback.

In 2001, Capriati captured her first Grand Slam event, winning the Australian Open, starting a string of three Grand Slam wins that also included the 2001 French Open and 2002 Australian Open.

Shoulder and wrist injuries forced her to retire in 2004. It was another unexpected detour that didn't allow the world's former No. 1 player to leave the game on her terms.

But earlier this summer, Capriati was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. She returned, as Capriati said in her acceptance speech, to center court for the first time after her career ended to finally achieve the goal shei had always aspired to.

Capriati says tennis had transformed and defined her, forcing her to grow up at a faster pace than others her age.

"I dreamed of tennis as a little girl, I dreamed of being the best," Capriati said in her speech. "Even though my life took some twists and turns that I didn't expect, I still managed to overcome adversity, win Grand Slams, pocket a gold medal, become the No. 1 player in the world."

Capriati said while tennis had provided with much joy on and off the court, she also endured pain in both places as well. It was, Capriati says, all part of the journey.

Goldberg says the pain brought on failures -- on and off the court -- is often felt by athletes achieving too much, too quickly. It's a pain often felt most by children who are pegged as prodigies.

Ask Marc Price what he thinks of the term, and greatness again enters the equation.

"It means you're special and it means you're doing something that no one else has done," Price says. "That pulls a lot of weight in my mind."

Like with Capriati, Goldberg wonders if the pressure to be the best will ultimately lead Gabby to success or to experience some of the hardships Capriati went through along the way.

The key, Goldberg insists, is receiving proper life management because without balance and proper perspective, even genuinely pursuing goals can lead down a path of destruction.

"If she starts taking in that she's a prodigy and that everyone is depending on her to fulfill all these expectations, when she gets on the court, at some point, it's going to crush her," Goldberg says. "And if it doesn't, that's miraculous."

Goldberg says in rare occasions, young athletes have the kind of temperament that keeps them from being vulnerable to the kind of traps facing star athletes.

For their part, Marc Price says he and his wife have guarded against the attention their daughter is receiving, carefully managing expectations.

Although they agree Gabby possesses special talents, they won't allow those -- or the predictions of greatness made by Macci -- to get in the way of the young lady they want to see their 9-year-old become in coming years.

"She is taught humility, she's taught to be respectful and she's taught a lot of family values that we make sure she has," Marc Price says. "Even though she's doing interviews and even though she has been on TV, she still has to be grounded."

Even at 9, Gabby has learned to take the attention thrust onto her in stride, understanding even now that nothing in life is guaranteed.

So she'll continue to train hard, pushing herself to win, but always making sure she's playing for the right reasons.

"Sometimes it's hard to be humble ... and it's great to know I am as good as I am," Gabby says. "But I just want to keep playing because I love it."

After all, it's what's in her chest and who's to say where the rest of the journey will take Gabby Price.

-- Email Jeff Arnold at jeff.arnold@thepostgame.com and follow him on Twitter @jeff_arnold24.

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