Olivier Lorin held his fingers about an inch apart.
"He hits it that far inside the line," Lorin said.
He is David Wheaton. It is Wheaton's backhand crosscourt return.
The shot helped Wheaton get past Lorin in their first-round match in the Volvo/Collegiate Championships at UCLA's L.A. Tennis Center. Then, Wheaton, a freshman at Stanford, used the shot and his formidable serve Friday to win two more matches.
He defeated Cal State Long Beach's Greg Failla, 6-4, 7-5, in the second round and upset No. 2-seeded Byron Talbot of Tennessee, 6-4, 2-6, 6-2, in the quarterfinals.
Actually, calling it an upset might be bit of a misnomer. Since the seedings are based on last year's performance, obviously Wheaton wasn't placed in the 32-player draw. But he arrived at Stanford with impressive junior credentials, including victories in the National Clay Courts and the U.S. Open last summer.
And now, Wheaton has reached the semifinals in his first collegiate tournament, and he meets 1987 NCAA finalist Dan Goldberg of Michigan today. Which brings us to his backhand return and how he got it.
Wheaton is interesting in that he is from Excelsior, Minn., a state that produces as many tennis prodigies as Omaha produces surfers. Better yet, Wheaton spent his formative years in Minnesota learning the game before eventually spending time at Nick Bollettieri's academy in Florida when he was in high school.
Usually, most promising prospects desert the Upper Midwest for the Lower Anywhere. But Wheaton still calls Minnesota home, at least when he's not traveling the country playing tennis.
As for his backhand, Wheaton most likely wouldn't have developed it if he hadn't lived in a cold climate. Wheaton's brother John taught him his serve. Bollettieri is partially responsible for his forehand. But the backhand crosscourt return comes from a most unlikely source.
"Hockey," said Mary Jane Wheaton, his mother. "The backhand is his own. It's such a natural shot because he plays hockey shooting left, and he's played hockey since he was 2. He loved hitting it. I started throwing tennis balls to him when he was 4 and he'd always say, 'Throw it to my backhand.' "
Thus, the move to Florida meant giving up playing hockey on a traveling team and practicing his slapshot on Lake Minnetonka.
"It was the hardest decision to give up hockey for him," Mary Jane Wheaton said.
David Wheaton, however, viewed the matter pragmatically.
"It was a bad situation," he said. "I was only No. 26 in my first year of 16-and-unders. And this was after being in the top 10 through all the other age groups. What was I going to do? I had to do something."
It wasn't as though a promising tennis player had to give up hockey before. Stefan Edberg and Joakim Nystrom both played it when they were growing up in Sweden. And Ivan Lendl, too, has been said to have a pretty decent slapshot.
Wheaton had the opportunity to meet Lendl on the court during the summer, and he nearly came away with a victory. They played in a Grand Prix event in Washington, and Wheaton took the first set.
That development sent David's brother John running to the phone.
"I remember he called us and said, 'David is beating Lendl,' " said Bruce Wheaton, their father. "I said, 'No, you're pulling my leg.' "
Said Mary Jane: "We thought he might lose oh-and-oh."
Finally, Wheaton lost in three sets, but he said he gained an important measure of self-confidence from the experience.
"When I won that first set, it eliminated my being afraid of anyone else," Wheaton said. "If I would have beat him, of course, it would have been even different. But it eliminated the fear against anyone else in the world."
Also, it left Wheaton with one other lasting memory of the world's No. 1 player.
"He kept up a running commentary between us during the whole match," Wheaton said. "It was real strange. He kept making a lot of comments during changeovers. I'm going to have to ask Andre (Agassi) whether Lendl did that to him when they played."
Was Lendl just being friendly or was he needling Wheaton?
"I wouldn't have called us brothers," Wheaton said, smiling. "Maybe he was afraid of losing and he was just joking around, trying to play it down."
Tennis Notes Two area residents, Manhattan Beach's Jeff Tarango (Stanford) and San Marino's Scott Melville (USC) will meet in the other semifinal. Melville, who won the 1987 NCAA doubles title with Rick Leach, upset No. 1-seeded Andrew Sznajder of Pepperdine, 6-4, 6-7, 7-6, in a second-round match.