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Bruin Net Star May Have to Turn Mean to Turn Pro

June 22, 1989|RAY RIPTON | Times Staff Writer

Right now, Stella Sampras is probably too nice to become a professional tennis player.

She is also too good a player not to get nasty enough to become a winner in the pros.

Earning big bucks on the pro circuit requires a heart of iron and nerves steely enough to cut diamonds--or throats. You have to be be an ice maiden, not a sweetheart.

Sampras, one of UCLA's best players for the last two seasons, has already established her credentials as an amateur. She is:

A CIF-Southern Section champion in singles and doubles (as a freshman) at Palos Verdes High School.

One of the nation's highly ranked junior players.

An NCAA doubles champion with former UCLA partner Allyson Cooper in 1988.

"Stella is a classy young lady (and) one of the nicest young women I've ever had the pleasure of coaching," said UCLA Coach Bill Zaima, whose team finished second to Stanford this year in the NCAA championships.

"I want to build the program around her," Zaima said. "She's a consummate team player.

"I have plans for her to be more of a leader on the team; I'd like to see her groom herself as the captain. We were so young this year with a lot of freshman and sophomores, and Stella would be yelling encouragement to players who were three courts down from her."

Sampras, who will be a junior next year, has already provided plenty of leadership, not only with her sunny disposition and her encouragement of teammates, but also with her singles and doubles play.

As a freshman she played mostly No. 4 singles, where she had a 32-14 record, lost the Pacific 10 Conference final to Stanford's Lisa Green and won 23 of her last 29 matches. She and Cooper were 35-7 in doubles.

As a sophomore, again mostly at No. 4 singles, she was 22-11. She and new doubles partner, freshman Mamie Ceniza, were 21-3. Zaima said that the pair "played only one bad match" last season, losing in the second round of NCAA individual competition to Stanford's Debbie Graham and Sandra Birch, 6-4, 6-1. The match was played after the Bruins had lost the team final, he added, "which took a little bit of the edge off."

During the year, he said, Sampras and Ceniza were nearly invincible, and the Bruins "won five matches because Stella and Mamie were on the court for the deciding match.

"I felt like the cat that got the mouse because I knew we were in great shape and that they would be able to stand up under that kind of pressure. They did it all year, and I love them for it."

Sampras did not make as great a contribution in singles, and Zaima believes that her aggressive, serve-and-volley singles play "takes a little bit longer to develop."

He said that she hits one of the "heaviest" balls in the college game. She puts a lot of top spin on the ball, and it doesn't bounce much, which makes for short points, he said.

Zaima said her style is made for the way the pros are playing today and that she has "a solid future in the pro game.

"She has good strokes, she doesn't jump around much and is very smooth and pretty to watch. All she needs to do is get a little bit more confidence and work on her agility and court coverage for singles.

"I just want her ego to be bigger. She takes no prisoners in doubles, but she does in singles sometimes and other girls use that against her."

Sampras, whose brother Pete turned pro at 17 and recently lost to Michael Chang (as did a lot of other people) in the French Open, knows the things she has to do to improve--and she plans to do them.

But she is in no hurry to join the pros because she likes what she's doing.

"I enjoy school, I enjoy going to college," she said. "I plan on playing the pro tour, but I knew I wasn't ready when I got out of high school.

"I love playing college tennis, having friends who watch you play and all the support of everyone. In professional tennis, everybody is out to win, and there is nobody to help you.

"I just want to see how it goes in college. I want to get my degree (in psychology), so I'll have something to fall back on."

She said that she also has to improve her game before she turns pro. "My footwork has to get better, and I have to get in better shape. I need to work on my backhand. I'll hit it great one day and slice it the next."

Another thing that needs work, she said, is her mental game. "I'll probably have to get mentally tougher. Pete is tough on the court; he plays his best when he's psyched up, pumped up. But off the court he's mellow like me.

"I'll think about becoming a pro after I get out of college. I won't have to worry about school or anything, and I can concentrate on tennis. As a professional, you have to have your mind set on playing, not on fooling around. I'll have to do that because I'll be spending money" on tour expenses.

Meanwhile, she plans to spend much of the summer working at the Jack Kramer Tennis Club in Rolling Hills, "hitting balls with the kids." She said that she also hopes to play doubles with her partner Ceniza as amateurs in some professional tournaments this summer.

She may also devote part of her summer to dreaming up encouraging phrases she can shout at Zaima's top recruits, some of the nation's best prep and junior players. The incoming freshmen include Kim Po of Miraleste High School, Cammie Foley of Bonita Vista High, Palisades High's Heather Willens and Meredith McGrath of Midland, Mich.

Sampras can also remain her thoroughly pleasant self for the next couple of years--and put off the thought of adding nastiness to her game.

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