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Graham's Rise in Rankings Slows to Crawl : Tennis: Fountain Valley player has been stuck near No. 50 in recent months, but says she's not overly concerned.

August 10, 1993|DAVE McKIBBEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CARLSBAD — In 1991, Fountain Valley's Debbie Graham appeared poised to join the elite of women's professional tennis. Still only a junior at Stanford, she was ranked 38th in the world.

Two years later, Graham's ranking is doing more hovering than climbing. She has been around No. 50 the last six months and now players such as Lisa Raymond and Lindsay Davenport are being mentioned as the next American superstars of women's tennis.

Does Graham care? Well, not really.

It's not that she's happy where she is--ranked 54th. But then, she's not particularly concerned about it either.

"I'm hoping to make that breakthrough, but it takes awhile," Graham said last week during the Mazda Tennis Classic, where she lost in the second round to Jennifer Santrock. "It's not really that easy. Only a few come out here and make it to the top. It's not as easy as it seems.

"Jim Courier and Pete Sampras, players I grew up with in the juniors, were on the tour three or four years before they made it to No. 1. Who knows if I'll ever be No. 1, but I know I have the potential to be higher than I am now. So I'm giving myself some time and I'll see how it goes."

However it goes, Graham's tennis career has already advanced further than she imagined.

"I went (to Stanford) trying to get a degree," said Graham, who graduated in 1992 with a degree in political science. "That was my goal. I was hoping to improve my tennis. I wasn't expecting to go on and play pro tennis. I really thought I'd go to business school or law school."

Graham said her modest goals have given her a better perspective than players who turned pro without going to college or even high school.

"I know I started out a little older than some of these other girls who have been playing for years, but I've made so many friends at college that live all around the world," said Graham, who turns 23 on Aug. 23. "To me, college has made me more well-rounded. I feel like my whole life isn't tennis. I've seen other sides of things.

"Some people, well, that's their choice. That's what they want to do, play tennis. But I don't feel like I've really lost out on that much. My ranking is about 50, that's higher than a lot of people who've been playing on the tour for years."

Graham stopped short of criticizing particular players for turning pro too early, but others on the tour have recently said that Jennifer Capriati, who became a professional at 14, was not ready to join the tour.

"Someone like Jennifer Capriati, I would have never told her to go to college," Graham said. "But she's not even at that point yet. But I would have just let her go to high school. College isn't for everyone. . . .

"I also feel like there's so much that a lot of these girls don't even understand or know what they've missed out on. After they've quit, they realize there's so much more to life than tennis. They gave it all up for tennis."

Graham, the nation's top-ranked 18-year-old as a senior at La Quinta High, had several chances to give it all up. She could easily have turned pro after high school or during her college--she did leave Stanford after three years, but not before she graduated. But each time Graham was tempted, she decided an education was the better option.

"I'd gone to (speak at) high schools in the Bay Area and talked to kids about how important it is to get your degree," she said. "I've always preached, 'Go to school, go to school.' I would have been going back on my word if I didn't finish."

Bob Hochstadter, Graham's coach for last eight years, said Graham made the right choice.

"With the type of game she plays, her years in college didn't hurt her," he said. "She matured a lot. It took a lot of pressure off her, because now she's got something to fall back on."

But even though Graham can always fall back on her degree, she acknowledged that the pressure of pro tennis did get to her last year.

"My nerves on the court were really bad," she said. "It was so unenjoyable for me to play. I did so well before I turned pro and had moved up so fast in the summer. Everyone was coming to me saying, 'Oh, you should be top 20.'

"They said, 'Think of all the money you can make.' Then you start thinking about it and you realize, it's a lot more than fun and games. Before you know it, you start thinking about what they're telling you. It's really easy to get that stuff in your head and really hard to get it out of there."

Things got so bad that Graham finally turned to Jim Loehr, a sports psychologist in Tampa who had worked for the USTA. Loehr has been helping Graham deal with the mental side of tennis, while Pat Etcheberry has been working on the physical side.

"We've worked with Debbie's fitness, movement and mental toughness so she can concentrate better and think more clearly on the court," Loehr said.

Loehr said Graham, one of the taller players on the women's tour at 6 feet, had not been taking advantage of her size.

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