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He's Trying to Match Up : Jonathan Leach, 15, Breaks Through Shadows Cast on Tennis Courts by Father and Brother

April 30, 1988|LISA DILLMAN | Special to The Times

If you're going to make a name for yourself in a sport, or really, in anything else, it can help to have had someone else in the family set a standard to match.

For 15-year-old Jonathan Leach--son of USC's tennis coach, Dick Leach, and brother of professional player Rick Leach--this takes on a literal meaning, as he wants to live up to Rick's accomplishments, well, match for match.

The Leachs are, no surprise, in the tennis business. They have been at it for a long time, going back to the days when Dick Leach earned national singles and doubles rankings 26 times. At USC, he brought the Trojans to the brink of a National Collegiate Athletic Assn. team title last year. They went 32-0 before they lost to Georgia in the semifinals. And, Rick, in his rookie year on the tour, merely picked up a Grand Slam doubles title at the Australian Open in January.

For some, the family standards can be looked at as positive. But there's also the other side. Growing up in the shadow of a successful father and brother is enough to make some run and hide.

"Jonathan has always looked at it (Rick's accomplishments) as a challenge, whereas it's been harder for Mindy," said Dick Leach of his daughter, a senior at Laguna Beach High School who recently signed a letter of intent to play tennis at the University of Minnesota. "She sort of looked at it as a no-win sort of deal."

Said Jonathan Leach, a freshman at Laguna Beach: "I try to match what he's done, but if I don't, it's no big deal. I'll just keep on trying."

So far, Jonathan hasn't kept exact pace with Rick in junior titles and rankings, but he hasn't lagged too far behind his brother, who had been top-ranked nationally by the same age.

Last year, Jonathan was ranked No. 3 in the nation in the boys' 14-and-under division and No. 1 in Southern California, and he won the four major junior national doubles titles in 14s. He won the 14-and-under singles title last year in straight sets at the Ojai Valley tournament, one of the more prestigious events in the area.

Last weekend, Leach repeated the accomplishment--only this time he won the 16-and-under title--as he defeated Marco Zuniga of San Diego, 6-2, 6-1, in the final. Leach didn't lose a set in the four-day event, and his father said he believed the match against Zuniga was one of the best his son had ever played. Also, a couple of players in the men's open division said that Jonathan would have had a good chance of beating a number of lower-ranked pros the way he played in the final against Zuniga.

Rick Leach also won the 16-and-under singles title at Ojai when he was playing for Laguna Beach. Jonathan Leach is playing high school tennis, following Rick's lead. Jonathan hasn't lost a high school match; he has gone 48-0.

When asked why he decided to play for Laguna Beach, Jonathan points to Rick's participation in high school tennis. And Rick's non-participation in high school basketball at Laguna Beach gave Jonathan the idea of going out for the freshman basketball team.

"He (Rick) always said he regretted not playing it," Jonathan said. "It has helped my quickness on the tennis court, and before I couldn't jump at all. Now I can, kind of."

Because Jonathan has grown almost 5 inches in the last year, bringing him to 6-feet 2-inches, mobility has been one of his weaknesses. But his size has helped his serve and his volley, which aren't always necessary weapons for a 15-year-old to win. But those strokes become important once the stakes get higher in college and professional tennis.

Which, of course, is Jonathan Leach's plan. To USC with his father and to the pro tour with his brother.

Dick Leach, stepping out of the role of coach and into that of proud father, believes his youngest son has the attitude to succeed. He points to Jonathan's fighting spirit, which can't really be taught.

"Jonathan is a lot more of a fighter than Ricky," Dick said. "Jonathan likes to fight everybody. He's even been suspended from school for fighting. You know, when the older kids were picking on him. Ricky would just walk the other way. But Jonathan is sort of a pit bull."

Now, however, that kind of spirit has been harnessed on the tennis court to a point where, according to the father, his son is a perfect gentleman on the court.

"It wasn't always the case," Dick Leach said. "Once when he was 10 years old and playing his best friend, Joey Frantz, who was the son of my business partner, Jonathan wouldn't let him use his racket when Joey's only racket broke. My wife marched down there and told him to give Joey a racket.

"So it got to Joey's match point and Jonathan stopped and marched around to the other side of the court and grabbed his racket back. And my wife had to come back down again. And Joey Frantz beat him, thank goodness. I was laughing so hard when my wife told me about it. I told him he shouldn't do that, especially those kind of things to a friend."

Jonathan learned to control his temper on the court but didn't lose his ability to fight back in a match.

"You still want to have a little bit of that . . . to be able to be a good competitor," Dick Leach said.

Said Jonathan: "I wasn't too good when I was younger. I'd get upset. I was just a jerk."

That stopped a few years ago. After all, Jonathan wants to be known as the best Leach, not the worst Leach.

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