John Swaino thought he had a firm grip on things. He could hold serve and he could hold a beer can and there wasn't a classroom on the Savanna High School campus big enough to hold him.
Swaino was never much for multiple-choice quizzes, but there was one he aced every time. It was a question of style, of life style, and at age 17, Swaino's options were these:
a) Reading, writing and arithmetic.
b) The beach, the pool, the keg, the tennis court.
Call it a no-brainer. Swaino did. These were going to be the best days of his life. He wasn't about to waste them behind a desk and in front of a blackboard.
"I just never went to class," Swaino says. "I missed whole days. I'd go out, play tennis, go to the beach, kick back and watch movies at a friend's house."
And that was just during the day.
During the night, Swaino and his friends partied. Nothing too wild or too outrageous, he says. "Just the everyday jock stuff. Drinking beer. Watching TV. Hanging out by the pool. Doing nothing."
It was the only way to fly. Never mind that it cost Swaino his tennis eligibility midway through his junior season. He didn't need Savanna, anyway. In his 2 1/2 seasons, freshman to junior, Swaino did not lose a league match. "The league was weak," Swaino says. He toyed with the competition.
Swaino was bored. In and out of the classroom, nothing at Savanna could match his attention span.
So, he dropped out.
Swaino had no senior year of high school. Those days were spent instead earning $24 an hour teaching tennis at an apartment complex in Anaheim.
"That was good money in those days," Swaino says. "It still is."
It was until the complex shut down its tennis shop eight months later. Suddenly, Swaino was earning $0 an hour.
With no high school diploma.
A longtime friend, Tom Spence, also happened to be the men's tennis coach at Cerritos College. Spence knew Swaino as a nationally ranked juniors player, one talented enough to extend Andre Agassi to three sets in the final of a 16-and-under tournament in Redlands.
So Spence made Swaino a proposition: You enroll at Cerritos, you play for me and we'll win a state championship together.
Cerritos did win the state championship, but did it without Swaino. Swaino dropped out after three weeks.
Next, Cypress College tennis Coach Dick Van Voorhis took a stab. By then, Van Voorhis had practice. The coach had tried to recruit Swaino as soon as he heard about Swaino quitting Savanna. When he heard about Swaino quitting Cerritos, he tried again.
For one year, the arrangement was a winner. Swaino went to class and went to the 1988 community college state finals in doubles. He and partner Erik Glade were freshmen. Van Voorhis had big plans for 1989.
Then, school got in the way again.
Swaino pulled an F in a work experience class. The reason was erratic attendance--Swaino claims he missed four classes--but the result was academic ineligibility. Swaino was forced to redshirt and wait for 1990.
Today, Swaino is a 22-year-old sophomore, older than some college graduates. Swaino and Van Voorhis can live with that.
They also can live with Swaino's state rankings of No. 4 in doubles and No. 6 in singles, his Orange Empire Conference singles championship and his community-college division doubles title at Ojai.
Friday, he enters the Southern Regionals of the community college state playoffs at the College of the Desert, where he figures to be seeded second in the singles draw.
And, one more thing:
In two weeks, Swaino stands to receive his associate's degree.
"He's turned himself around 180 degrees," Van Voorhis says. "I did a grade check on him recently and he's getting a B in English, a C-plus in another class and a C in political science. He's going to get his degree.
"I told him, 'John, I'm really proud of you.' Maybe in the long run, the best thing that could have happened to him is getting that bad grade last year. It made him sit back and take a look at where he was going."
Or where he wasn't going. Swaino wants to play Division I tennis, but getting there requires getting through community college first.
The same thing motivates him now that motivated him back in 1986, when he bailed out of Savanna to teach tennis lessons.
"I thought of the money," Swaino says. "I'll do what it takes to get it. If that means a bachelor's degree, I'll get a bachelor's degree. I'd love to keep playing tennis, but I could break a leg any day. I need something as a backup."
And teaching pros with major-college experience generally attract better offers than the tennis shop at the Oakwood Apartments.
"I was stubborn and pigheaded back then," Swaino says. "I look back on it now and it seems so stupid. Basically, I think you grow up."
Swaino did so--and just in time. He was down, 0-40, and down to his second serve before it dawned on him.
In order to play first-class tennis, at least at this level, you first have to go to class.