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Tennis : Todd Nelson, a Late Bloomer at 26, Finds It's Tough to Play Catch-Up

October 18, 1987|Lisa Dillman

Arthur Ashe often wonders--and, perhaps, dreams--about what it would be like to see someone such as Michael Jordan poised on the other side of a tennis court from Boris Becker, racket in hand.

That's right, raid the football fields and basketball courts and teach the kids how to swing a forehand, rather than a forearm.

Ashe isn't the only one with such dreams. When Sherwood Stewart was here recently for a 35-and-over tournament, he talked about former basketball star Rick Barry's powerful serve and shook his head about the might-have-beens.

It sounds so easy in theory. A gifted athlete should have little problem in catching up to tennis players who have been hitting groundstrokes since they were 4. Or younger.

In practice, however, it might not be so easy. Todd Nelson, in fact, is an example of how hard it is to play catch-up.

"Everyone puts pressure on you to do everything early," said Nelson, who lives in San Diego. "If you're 27, they say you're over the hill. Physically, I'm in my prime. It's my game that is still catching up."

Which, for Nelson, still causes mixed results.

He seemed ready to finally make an impact on the tour after his semifinal finish in the Transamerica Open at San Francisco earlier this month.

Nelson, 26, got into the tournament as a "lucky loser" when Paul Annacone withdrew because of a back injury. Nelson took advantage of his, well, luck, and upset Matt Anger and Eliot Teltscher. And, just a few shots separated Nelson from reaching the final as Jim Pugh stopped him, 6-4 in the third.

The week after San Francisco, Nelson's ranking improved 59 places, from 165 to 106. His goal for 1987, a ranking in the top 100, suddenly seemed attainable. But Nelson promptly slipped back a few steps in his next tournament at Las Vegas, losing in the first round to someone named Craig Miller in the small satellite event.

But then, that's been the story of Nelson's career. Two steps forward, one back. Nelson took up tennis later than most, playing in his first tournament at 15, after having been given the choice between tennis or golf. In high school, he played baseball and ran track. Now 6-foot-1 and 185, he was rejected as a football prospect because he was too little.

"I was terrible in tennis," Nelson said of his early days. "But I got myself to play at this level after I caught up with the others in college."

Until his San Francisco result, though, Nelson had gained attention primarily through his doubles partnership with Gary Muller. When Muller and Nelson reached the U.S. Open doubles semifinals in 1986, it drew notice because Muller is from South Africa and Nelson is black. Spectators and the media wondered why politics didn't interfere with their partnership.

But Muller and Nelson didn't let it.

"We want to keep it (the attention) focused on our tennis," Nelson said. "We've kept politics out of it. We're good friends and we've never had any problems."

They became such good friends, in fact, that Muller encouraged Nelson to go to South Africa to play in a big-money, Grand Prix tournament last year. This year, Muller extended the offer again, saying Nelson could stay at his house.

For a professional tennis player, the event in South Africa is an attractive one. Many top players stay away because of their political beliefs, therefore the field is a diluted one, at best. Nelson, however, wasn't about to be swayed by the instant gratification of computer points and money.

"Gary begged me to come play," Nelson said. "But to me, the money isn't that important. It happens to be a great event. I think Matt Anger won it last year and it's a Super Series event and the field isn't as strong.

"But I didn't want to sacrifice what I believed in. Gary understood what I was feeling. It is not a positive thing for me to be playing in right now because I don't agree with what's going on in South Africa. . . . I wasn't gaining much by playing in it and it might hurt the situation."

Mac speaks: When John McEnroe played Miloslav Mecir at the Forum last week in an exhibition, he had to wait, and wait, and wait some more for 15-year-old Michael Chang of Placentia to complete a 7-6, 4-6, 7-6 victory over 18-year-old David Wheaton.

The match went 2 hours 25 minutes, violating one of the first rules of exhibition tennis, "Never let the first match go more than an hour and a half."

"They don't know the rules yet," McEnroe said, smiling. "No opening match should go be allowed to go more than an hour and twenty minutes. . . . I'll give them an hour and a half. I don't think they'll be invited back here anytime soon."

And McEnroe had this to say about his actions during the U.S. Open, which, in turn, brought him a two-month suspension from the tour and a $17,500 fine:

"I have a poor taste in my mouth. I was the one who dug my own grave. It was stupid. I didn't have absolute control and they took advantage of it."

Tennis Notes Australian Open champion Hana Mandlikova and U.S. Open semifinalist Lori McNeil are among 16 players who will compete in the $100,000 Ford-Sports Championships mixed doubles event at Grand Champions Resort in Indian Wells, Calif., Dec. 3-6. Others in the field include Dick Stockton, Robert Seguso, Stan Smith and Bonnie Gadusek.

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