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Rostagno Returns With Different Approach : Tennis: Time away from sport gives him chance to enjoy the normal life.

August 01, 1995|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Absence makes the heart go wander, or so it seems in the case of Derrick Rostagno.

In an abrupt passage two years ago, he went from being a player making a good living, and who loved being on the professional tennis tour, to a contentedly backpacked college student at UCLA, all with hardly a backward glance.

In a sport in which players cling desperately to the circuit for fear of having to find a real job, Rostagno happily embraced his forced hiatus from tennis and found, surprisingly, he kind of liked a desk job.

Chronic tendinitis in his right elbow forced Rostagno into both an operating room and a classroom after the U.S. Open in 1993. After surgery, Rostagno, of Pacific Palisades, was faced with a lengthy rehabilitation and chose to put his time away from tennis to good use.

"I lived my life as if I would never come back and I got involved in other things," Rostagno said Monday, first day of the Infiniti Open at Los Angeles Tennis Center at UCLA. Rostagno, barely into the fourth month of his comeback, beat qualifier Kent Kinnear, 6-3, 6-3.

"Other things" turned out to be economics classes at UCLA and an internship in Mayor Richard Riordan's office. Rostagno, who played at Stanford, said he is considering law school when his tennis career is over.

"[The internship] gave me insight into office work," Rostagno said. "It was a desk job. If you are working with the right people, it can be fun and nice to be working on things that matter.

"Now, I have a rough idea of where I'm headed in the future, when tennis is done. I'm not in a hurry to get there, I can wait."

Rostagno, 29, spent nearly two years off the circuit and went more than a year without playing significant tennis. Yet, even as his elbow healed, he didn't find himself itching to get on the road.

"I learned what it was like to live life in one place," he said. "For 1 1/2 years, I lived in an actual house, which I didn't have after 10 years on the tennis tour."

His life on the tour was as a typical journeyman, with moments of great promise. Rostagno was ranked as high as No. 13 in 1991. He may be best remembered for a memorable match against Boris Becker in the second round of the U.S. Open in 1989. Rostagno held two match points against Becker in the fourth set of a riveting match that lasted 4 hours 27 minutes. Becker won, 1-6, 6-7, 6-3, 7-6, 6-3.

Rostagno's last match before his injury came at the U.S. Open in 1993.

When he finally decided to return to tennis, last January, Rostagno applied to the ATP tour and received a protected ranking, No. 94, which was his averaged ranking at the time he was injured. After six tournaments, his ranking was left to find its own level, and he started over again at the bottom. But in the last four months, he has jumped more than 1,000 places, to his current No. 176. He advanced into the third round at Wimbledon in June.

"I don't know if the ranking will ever get where it used to be," Rostagno said. "My goal is to play better than ever."

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