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Jay Stokes, owner and director of Glendoveer Tennis Center, was giving a lesson in July when he spotted a pair of young ladies on another court.
One played like a beginner, the other like a Women’s Tennis Association veteran.

After introductions, Stokes began to take in small bits of the Hermon Bhrane story, which we don’t encompass in these parts very often.

Bhrane, 19, was born in Eritrea - a small country in the horn of Africa - but fled with her family to Germany when she was a year old to avoid Eritrea's war with Ethiopia.

When she was 7, the family moved to a house next to a tennis club. Hermon's twin sister, Blul, opted for ballet. Hermon chose tennis. It became a passion.

Though a natural southpaw, she was taught to play tennis right-handed, because at her club, that's the way they taught everybody.

"If I want to, I can play tennis left-handed," she says.

No need for that.

By the time she was 11, Hermon had won the under-12 title at the German Open. Over the next few years, she represented the German Tennis Federation at tournaments throughout the world, including the Junior Orange Bowl in Miami, and was her country's top junior. Former tour pro Chanda Rubin discovered Bhrane at age 12 and provided sponsorship help for a couple of years.

At 15, as the result of a medication taken for asthma, Bhrane flunked a random drug test, routinely administered to top players throughout the world. She claims she was set up by a disgruntled former coach in collusion with her family doctor.

The result was a two-year suspension that effectively halted her career. Within a few months, she ventured to Granite Bay, Calif., where she spent two years honing her game at the Gorin Tennis Academy. She returned to Germany and played some tournaments in Europe with some success, earning a WTA world ranking at one point, but she has an adversarial relationship with the country's tennis federation.

"I just couldn't stay in Germany," Bhrane says.

In July, she came to Portland with her mother and younger brother to live with an aunt under a 90-day visa waiver program. She has been practicing daily at Glendoveer, but is without a coach, a sponsor or a visa.

"I want to play pro events, but I'm stuck in the middle," Bhrane says. "The things I need are money and a coach. I would travel and play tournaments, and I know I'd do good."

Stokes, a longtime local pro, is convinced of that.

"Hermon is the best player I've ever been on the court with," he says. "If she's not world-class, I'm not a breathing human being.

"But that doesn't mean anything. Without the proper sponsorship and stewardship, she's just going to be someone who was a contender, and that's all. She needs to be out there (on tour) right now. The clock is ticking."

Vitaly Gorin owns and operates the Gorin Tennis Academy. Gorin, 41, was born in Ukraine but came to the U.S. as a youth. He works with the Russian Tennis Federation and has coached several men on the ATP tour, including Dmitry Tursunov (ranked 36th) and Igor Kunitsyn (42nd). Gorin coached and sponsored Bhrane during her two years at his academy. He knows her well.

"It's a very unusual story," he says. "She hasn't been working with anyone for at least a year and a half. I can't tell you how she is now. When she was younger, she had a lot of potential. When she was with us, UCLA offered her a full scholarship. Hermon turned that down, hoping to go pro.

"Physically, she had the potential to be one of the best. She's as fast, if not faster, than some of the best players in the world, and she hits a pretty big ball. At the same time, she is 19, and there are 15-year-olds out there who are way ahead of her now. She hasn't trained, and she hasn't had a coach. In women's tennis, by 19, the ship has sailed. If she wants to make a run at the pros, she needs to be in a competitive environment."

Gorin thinks her best bet is to play college tennis.

"If she goes out on the pro tour now, she'll lose a lot more than win," he says. "In college, she'll be facing good players, but she has a legitimate chance at winning quite a few matches. She has to learn how to win again. She has missed a lot of time."

Bhrane says college tennis is an option, but she prefers to play pro.

"That's been my goal for my life since I was 7," she says. "People say college (tennis) is not that bad, but I've been through so much : I just have to be a pro."

Bhrane has enjoyed her time in Portland enough that she has decided she will keep it as her home base if she is able to find a sponsor to get her on tour.

"Portland is cool," she says. "I would like to stay here and travel to tournaments. A lot of people have been nice to me, even though they don't know me. But you need a lot of money to play tennis. If you don't have a sponsor, there's no way."

Bhrane feels she has been negatively impacted with potential sponsors because of the drug suspension and her row with the German federation.

"It's like, 'She cheated,' " Bhrane says. "But they don't know the story."

Gorin does.

"I think she got a raw deal," he says. "We took her case to the courts in Switzerland, but by that time it was too late. The judge said, 'Had you brought this to our attention (in timely fashion), we'd have cleared her.'

"She's a wonderful girl, but fearful, non-trusting of many situations, and she has reason to be that way with what has happened to her. She needs a sponsor - somebody who believes in her."

Stokes is one who does.

"It's a sad deal," he says. "She'd like to go out and play the tour, and she has the potential. If there were someone who wanted to back her, it'd be like a prize racehorse. She'd be worth it."

If something doesn't happen by the end of this month, Bhrane and her family will return to Germany. After that, who knows?

"I don't care where I am, just not in Germany," she says. "I'd like to stay here. I'd like to get a permanent visa. I'd like to get a sponsor who will provide money for travel, which I would pay back in prize money."

Anyone care to oblige?

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