When Malachi Coleman
was 7 years old, he got his first taste of tennis by playing doubles with his father, mother and older sister. His parents both had played Division I tennis and his sister was a good high school player.
Stephen Coleman told his young son, "'Mal, you can stand closer and hit underhand,' but that kid was bound and determined to stand at the baseline and hit overhand. He didn't want anything special. We were on the court for a total of about one hour and a half. I watched Mal make a serve. He ended up getting a couple in."
It's no wonder Malachi "decided that wasn't for me. I wasn't really a huge fan."
After all, he was blessed with athleticism and good coordination, even at that age, and already had begun sampling a number of other sports.
His dad recalled, "When he first started to crawl, my wife (Erica) immediately put knee pads on him. At age 3 we loaded up the stroller and wagon with stuff from all (at lest nine different) sports. We would spend the entire day just doing stuff. That same year he rode a two-wheel bicycle on his first attempt. He can hit a golf ball 300 yards. His mother still thinks that football was his best sport. He could punt the ball 60 yards when he was 9 years old.
"He never (had) been the best kid on a team, but always the second- or third-best. But he made the other players better."
Today, however, he is the best player on a team, the juggernaut Albuquerque Academy
tennis team, which has won the last 13 state titles and 19 overall in its division - both overall state records. The 6-foot, 165-pound junior passed up six returnees to grab the top spot in his first year of high school tennis. This team is so deep and talented that it could be the best ever in New Mexico.
Malachi Coleman has attended the Academy since sixth grade, but once he got serious about tennis he played only in United States Tennis Association (USTA) tournaments. It was common knowledge that he probably was the state's premier player for the past two years and rumors circulated from time to time that he was going to add some prep tennis to his resume. It finally happened this spring.
Academy coach Ray Jaramillo was ever-hopeful, but he wisely did not turn on the pressure.
"Every year I always heard rumors. If he shows up, OK. I wasn't going to bother him. I was just hoping to get him at any time. Kids at his level spend the majority of time playing USTA. Top kids live the majority of time at tennis academies. High school tennis is not looked at for college scholarships. He came to me the first Monday of February and said he wanted to play high school tennis this year. I didn't ask any questions and off he went.
"He is a very powerful kid, very athletic and one of the quickest kids on the court. He's an all-court player with not any weakness to his game."
In his first four prep matches this spring, he lost only two games.
Age 12 probably was the turning point for Malachi's athletic career. After playing baseball, basketball and football and close to earning a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, he was ready for a new challenge. Good friend George Brunacini turned on the tennis switch by inviting him to play after school.
The new-found passion was even surprising to Malachi, who admitted, "Honestly, I'm not entirely sure. But I loved it and it was all I wanted to do. My parents said I could stop all other sports. I wanted to get my black belt first. They weren't too disappointed," he laughed.
His delighted parents then built a tennis court at home and the sport became all-consuming.
Physically strong for his age and size, Malachi faced good and bad news right away. He loved hitting hard, but the ball too often soared out of bounds. He hit a ton of balls before he learned control.
"I never really shied away from hard work," he noted. "When my parents set me loose on tennis, it was all I wanted to do. It was kind of an obsession, I guess."
His private coach, Gui Dupont, recalled, "He was pretty raw - lots and lots of work to do. He was a good athlete, but not so much into tennis (at first). After a while he loved the game. He improved his serve and that became a big weapon. We tried to slow him down and build his game around power. He was a few years behind in terms of match play experience."
Dupont's favorite story is about a drill in which he lined up 10 cones on the baseline and Malachi had to hit each one in order at high speed. If he missed - even on the 10th cone - he had to start all over.
"Two summers ago it took him two hours," Dupont related. "He broke (the strings in) five racquets. He was really mad because he couldn't get that last cone. He never stops trying. He is the hardest worker that I know."
He got his feet wet during the Jerry Cline Tournament in Albuquerque, reaching the finals, but then losing badly in the title match. "Losses frustrated me, but didn't put me down much," he said. "It made me work harder."
His first success came in Greeley, Colo., where he won singles at age 16 and age 18 and shared a doubles win at age 18.
"It gave me confidence that I could win tournaments," he said. "The competition wasn't the best, but I was happy to take advantage. I wasn't really worried about rankings. The first time I checked I was somewhere in the 40s (in the USTA Southwest). I was kind of shocked."
His best tourney win (Level 3 nationals) so far came in Tucson, Ariz., when he was unseeded and upset the No. 1 seed during a three-set quarterfinal thriller. He did not win the tourney, but he also defeated two other players who had beaten him in the past.
As his resume grows, Malachi already has played in California, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Florida, Indiana, Michigan, Oklahoma and Mallorca, Spain.
He spent a month at a tennis academy in Spain as a freshman and had his first experience playing on red clay. Spending a semester at a tennis academy in California as a sophomore probably served as encouragement for trying high school tennis this spring.
"It made me realize how much I liked the academy," he recalled. "It (playing prep tennis) was something I could do for the school. It's more about camaraderie. The players on the team are pretty good - definitely competitive. I feel pretty lucky to be playing on such a great team. They don't necessarily need me to win."
What makes him the state's premier player?
Malachi analyzed, "One of the greatest assets through my whole career has been my athleticism. I try as hard as I can never to let a ball get past me. I still hit pretty hard. I don't have an obvious weakness. It's more fine-tuning everything."
Dr. Coleman paints this picture of his son on the court: "He has the notion of being able to hit every ball. Some people are graceful, but he plays tennis like a cross of football and Tae Kwon Do."
Even though he has a 4.3 GPA, he still is learning how to outsmart rivals who have been playing the game much longer.
As father-to-son he says, "Buddy, you're athletic, but eventually you are going to start beating kids with your brain."
The Coleman family has put their money where their love is by sponsoring the Coleman Vision Tennis Championships (for women) during the past 18 years in Albuquerque. Malachi has his own project, hoping to raise some money for Wheels Up, an organization of disabled people he has befriended through tennis. He plays weekly with friends from the Wheelchair Clinic.
Dr. Coleman pointed out, "They are a great inspiration to Mal. He gets his friends to play, too. They (his friends) never played tennis before and balls are scattered all over the place."
Malachi's goals for this spring are to help the Chargers notch another state championship and crack the top 100 in the USTA Southwest rankings. He currently is No. 35 in the 18s, but had played just one tournament at this time. Last year he was No. 2 in the Southwest 16s.
He hopes to play for a Division I college in the northeast and loves indoor tennis.
Malachi's favorite professional player is Roger Federer, calling him "definitely a pleasure to watch. He's very smooth and has a very sound technique. I try to emulate some of his strokes."
The young star admits he "definitely has thought about it (turning pro some day), but getting into it is definitely tough. I'll see where tennis takes me, but I'm not going to force anything."