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Pursuing Another Frontier : Robertson Working to Establish Tour for Women's Volleyball

August 16, 1986|SARAH SMITH | Times Staff Writer

Linda Robertson is a pioneer, although she doesn't fit the old-fashioned mold. She's not weathered, long-suffering or homespun, but lithe, vivacious and stylish.

Her preferred attire is not a bonnet, but a bikini.

In place of a ball of yarn or balling infant, Robertson carries a volleyball. And the frontier she's intent upon taming is half a continent away from the American prairie.

The uncharted territory for this modern pioneer is women's beach volleyball, and her quest is to help the sport hit pay dirt on the sand. The immediate goal is to lure corporate sponsors to put up the money to create a women's tour, much like the increasingly successful men's circuit backed by Jose Cuervo and Miller Lite.

Robertson, a Laguna Beach native, and her partner, Pepperdine University volleyball Coach Nina Matthies, are in the forefront of a movement to organize women's beach volleyball. Their recent competitive dominance has cast them in the role of leaders, something the sport requires if it is to progress beyond its professional infancy.

Robertson and Matthies have established a streak of victories in the past two seasons "unprecedented in modern women's beach volleyball," according to John Hastings, publisher of Volleyball Monthly.

The duo won a remarkable nine of 11 tournaments in 1985 and eight of nine this summer, including eight straight, to become the most respected opponents in the sport.

They are also one of its most popular spectator attractions, an interesting amalgam of the sport's best mental strategist--33-year-old Matthies--and one of its prettiest and most charismatic natural athletes, the 26-year-old Robertson.

If attracting sponsors and publicity to the sport is the task, Robertson, who works as a sales representative for a men's sportswear company in Los Angeles, appears to be an ideal ambassador.

She has already starred in a Wheaties commercial, and on the beach Hastings describes her as "a crowd favorite" with her model-like looks, her emotional style of play and her agility, grace and speed.

She suspects that much of her talent is inherited from athletic parents. Her father, Wilbur Robertson, was a quarterback at USC and her mother, Nancy Stratton, is an accomplished club tennis player.

Even so, it was not an entirely predictable path that took Robertson to the Chicago Open this weekend for an elite tournament on North Beach. She and Matthies are the favorites. Four years ago, she probably would have rejected the suggestion that she would ever be half of the finest women's beach volleyball team in the world.

Not for a lack of talent, only for a temporary lack of desire.

A two-time All-American at left outside hitter for UCLA, she turned her back on volleyball in December, 1981, after the Bruins lost a heart-breaking match for the NCAA title to rival USC in front of a huge crowd at Pauley Pavilion.

What she had hoped would be the "fairy tale" ending to her collegiate career turned into a "nightmare" and the worst moment of her athletic career, she said. She has never watched the videotape of the match.

"I always felt maybe there was something I could have done--whether it was me hitting harder or talking the girls who were having problems out of it," she said. "I still rarely talk about it or think about it. I had a bitter taste in my mouth about team sports after that. I really wanted to get out and try an individual sport."

The Bruins finished in the top four nationally every year during Robertson's career, but after that crushing finale to a stellar senior season she played no volleyball for nearly two years.

She had never been known as a particularly dedicated practice player, and she didn't even consider trying out for the U.S. national team because of its grueling months of intense discipline and drills. Just the four-month collegiate season made her long for the outdoors.

"I was so tired of it," she said. "At one point, I swore I'd never go inside (a gym) again."

Instead, she reverted to her first love--tennis--by trying out for the Bruin team as a fifth-year senior in 1983.

Although she hadn't played organized tennis since her freshman year at Laguna Beach High School when she was No. 1, she made UCLA's team as the 12th and lowest player on the ladder. She laughs and suggests that she was a sentimental choice.

"At first, I felt like, 'Man, let me get out there by myself!' And then I got out there on the tennis court and got thrashed," she said.

But she had always enjoyed the freedom and ambiance of beach volleyball. After her graduation in 1983, a timely invitation from Matthies, the former Bruin assistant coach who recruited her to UCLA, proved too much of a compliment to decline. They began to win right off, and Robertson's volleyball career was rekindled.

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