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Ambidextrous Advantage : Tennis Player Luke Jensen, a Junior at USC, Has 'Em Confused at Pan Am Games With His Ability to Serve With Either Hand

August 19, 1987|BILL DWYRE | Times Sports Editor

INDIANAPOLIS — The thing about Luke Jensen is that he can hurt you just as badly with his left hand as he can with his right. And he's not even a boxer.

Jensen does his jabbing and punching on the tennis courts. He is a 21-year-old junior from USC who is also the eighth-seeded men's singles player in the Pan American Games tournament. In fact, he is probably the United States' best hope for a gold medal in tennis.

He is also one of the stylists in the game today--on any level. He serves both right and left-handed and can hit both ground strokes and volleys with either hand. To tennis players, that kind of advantage is almost unthinkable.

Jensen used his ambidexterity in a quarterfinal match Tuesday, beating Kenneth Thome of Costa Rica, 6-4, 6-4. That put Jensen into the quarterfinals against top-seeded Augustin Moreno of Mexico, and although Jensen is seeded only eighth, he probably will be favored against the Mexican.

"They did the seeding by taking the number of games each player lost in a round-robin tournament last week," Jensen said. "I guess I don't agree that that's the best system, but it really doesn't matter that much when it's all over. My goal is to win the gold medal and I'd have to win them all to do that anyway."

Moreno once played for Pepperdine, and Jensen said that he and Moreno have met seven times. Jensen also said he has won all seven of those matches, four of them on clay surfaces similar to the surface here at the Indianapolis Sports Center.

Jensen, who played No. 2 in singles and doubles last season at USC, said that his ambidextrous playing has been the main topic of discussion about his game for years, and that he really arrived at it by accident.

"I threw footballs and baseballs left-handed when I was a kid," he said. "But when I started to play tennis, I played right-handed. So my dad had the idea that, since I had a naturally lefty throwing motion, I could serve left-handed. So we started working on it and it just kind of stuck."

Jensen's father, Howard, was not a tennis player. He played pro football with the New York Giants.

But tennis became Luke's game, and no matter from which side he has hit the ball over the years, he has always had a cool hand. "A lot of coaches along the way have tried to get me to change, to stick with serving just from one side or the other," he said. "But I never have."

He plays his ground strokes and volleys right-handed about 99% of the time, and his arsenal of shots includes a deadly two-handed top-spin backhand.

"Lots of people have also suggested that I play with two forehands, but I've never done that, either," Jensen said.

What he does is throw enough variety on his serve at an opponent that his already powerful game becomes even more difficult to handle.

In his match with Thome, the 18-year-old Central American junior champion, who played No. 4 singles for Rice University last year, Jensen really demonstrated his versatility when he was serving at 2-2 of the second set, and struggling a bit.

It took him 12 points to win the game, and in those 12 points, he served right-handed nine times and left-handed three times. He even double-faulted once from each side.

"I had to serve left-handed quite a bit from the north side later in the second set," he said. "The sun was in a position where I couldn't see well on my toss the other way."

Any tennis player who has ever been forced to serve by tossing the ball directly into the sun and flailing away helplessly would kill for that kind of advantage, not to mention resting one arm, or letting one sweaty hand dry while serving with the other, or showing your opponent many different kinds of spins and kicks.

"I didn't do it today but there have been times when I've served a first serve righty and the second lefty," Jensen said. "A lot of times, I switch from one side to the other just to stay in the groove both ways. I don't like to lose the feel on either side."

He said there are some disadvantages.

"People don't think of this part but I also have to spend twice the amount of time working on my serve as other guys," he said. "Most people have five different serves with one arm. I have 10 with two."

Jensen ran off to a 5-1 lead in the first set and then let Thome get back two service breaks. But then Jensen broke him back at 4-5 for the first set.

He played a similar set in the second, getting up a break at 4-2, then letting Thome back in at 4-4 before breaking again for the match at 4-5.

"He's a good player, and it was a good match," Jensen said. "I feel very good now. I want to win a gold medal. To do that would be, without question, one of the highest points of my career. Being a gold medalist for your country with Carl Lewis and Greg Louganis . . . what an honor."

And being able to hit serves at 100 m.p.h., with either arm . . . what a gift.

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