LONG BEACH — A wonder at 14, he stood sideways to the net ready to uncoil for his serve in the manner of John McEnroe, only right-handed, his eyes steely blue, his brown hair tapered so that only the top strands went with the wind.
Willy Quest was where he has spent much of his young life: on a tennis court, fenced in, with people watching.
Impeccable in whites, he was playing in the Long Beach Junior Championships last Sunday at El Dorado Park.
He tossed the ball high and swung his oversized racket up in a graceful arc. The ball shot over the net, dove wickedly and bounced past his opponent.
It was the kind of shot expected from the No. 2-ranked player in his age group in Southern California and No. 25 in the country.
Between points, Quest plucked his racket strings like pros do. On the rare occasions when his two-handed backhands or charging volleys did not land where he had ticketed them, he looked at the sky.
But he threw no tantrums. Nothing in his behavior could be construed as childish, which set him apart from most of the other players as much as his ability did.
But he did not look like he was having fun. None of the players in the tournament, many with braces on their teeth, did. They hit shots that many older players only dream of hitting, but they did not shout gaily to each other across the net. Parents were watching.
Quest won his second-round match easily. When he and his opponent, Brandon Garcia, shook hands, Garcia's eyes were wide with admiration.
Garcia smiled, shook his head and said, "He's tough."
Quest said little. He was missing some basketball games on TV.
"Did Villanova beat Michigan?" he asked.
Quest's destiny, some predict, is greatness, but he is content to let destiny wait.
He knows he is good, but he is not inclined to rave.
"In my age category, if I'm playing good, I should be able to beat anybody," he says, and leaves it at that.
He does not talk much about tennis. He rarely watches it on TV.
"It's pretty boring," he said.
Playing tennis does not consume him either.
"It's pretty much fun when I'm on a roll," he said. "I like to win, but when I'm playing bad or too much I get sick of it."
He enjoys watching and playing basketball--he averages 15 points a game for the Rogers Junior High team. He also likes to read, talk on the phone and play trivia games.
And, his mother said, "Girls call all the time."
When his morning match ended, Quest longed to get back to being a typical eighth-grader. He stood uncomfortably around tournament officials and other adults, anxious to get home to watch Georgia Tech and Syracuse before he had to return in a few hours to a high-strung world.
Dick Leach, the men's tennis coach at USC, was watching his 11-year-old son, Jonathan, play on the court next to Quest.
"Some parents, who have never played tennis, put inordinate pressure on their kids," Leach said. "You see scary line calls. A kid calls a ball out when it's clearly in. They do it to please their parents who want them to win so badly."
But Quest said, "I don't have any pressures."
His father, Ed, wasn't at the tournament but his mother was. However, her back-and-forth gazes were affectionate, not glaring spotlights.
"I've seen plenty of angry parents," said Jane Quest, a tanned woman who is president of the Long Beach Tennis Patrons, sponsor of the tournament, which concludes this weekend.
"Parents are always ready to kiss a winner, but I've never seen them rush up to kiss a loser. I've seen parents who goad their children, call them names to get them to play better.
"But I've seen nice parents too."
One boy, she said, arrived at Sunday's tournament with a coach who carried a computer.
The coach wanted to know if his player's opponent was left-handed or right-handed. When he found out, he fed information into the computer to determine the strategy his player should use.
"I think it's awful," Jane Quest said.
When Willy Quest was 5, his grandmother gave him a little racket that he used to hit balls against his garage door. That was a start.
"He was real competitive," Jane Quest said. "He was always good at games, soccer, baseball. When he was young he'd try to figure out how to beat people."
But the real beginning came four years ago when his mother took him to Pete Cavallaro, the head pro at the Old Ranch Tennis Club in Seal Beach, for lessons. She also took her daughter, Molly.
"After 15 minutes on the court, she asked me which of the two she should put her money in," Cavallaro said. "I told her Willy was very special, and recommended him."
(Molly is on the freshmen tennis team at Yale University.)
"He's got everything it takes to succeed as a competitive player," said Cavallaro, who works with Quest once a week. "He's very talented physically and he's a very intelligent player. He's as strong mentally as anyone I've had. His potential is unlimited."
Leach also gave a glowing appraisal: "He could be No. 1. He always attacks and never lets up."