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After the Fall, Cook Is Ready for Climb Back

August 05, 1995|DANA HADDAD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Almost as sudden as his apparent overnight prowess on a tennis court, Jason Cook seems to have developed a double personality.

The only question before today's start of the United States Tennis Assn. Junior National championships is which Jason Cook will show up.

The Cook who quickly transformed himself into a powerful yet deft and, most important, confident player who compiled a 25-1 record on the junior circuit the first half of 1995?

Or the Cook who in June entered the Southern California Junior sectional championships seeded No. 1 and exited in the second round?

Only Cook has the answer. And the answer is he's ready to return to the former.

"Now I have something to prove," said Cook, 18, who lives in Woodland Hills. "I don't think I'll be seeded [in the nationals in Kalamazoo, Mich.]. That motivates me, because I know I can beat a majority of the nine through 16 seeds and some of the top eight.

"I feel really good."

Actually Cook, who is, in fact, not seeded at Kalamazoo, still had something to prove at the sectional in Fountain Valley, where he lost to unseeded David White of Rancho Santa Fe, 7-5, 6-7 (6-8), 6-4.

Always competitive on the juniors circuit, Cook in 1993 held a year-end ranking of No. 9 in Southern California 16 singles. In 1994, he was No. 13 in 18s. But he was never considered an elite player.

Then came the impressive 25 victories, which included a string of titles in local tournaments and a victory at the Tucson Copper Bowl, a national invitational event in January.

"I'd never really done all that much in the juniors," he said. "I think people thought it was a fluke. . . . I got to prove them wrong.

"But in the sectional, everybody was just taking shots at the No. 1 seed there." And Cook played the role of sitting duck.

After the match with White, who frustrated the serve-and-volleying Cook with powerful strokes from the baseline, Cook disappeared. Not even his coach, Craig Heinberg, knew Cook's whereabouts.

"He's probably trying to kill himself," Heinberg said jokingly after the match. "Jason played pretty average."

He didn't last long in the consolation draw either. After beating two unseeded players, Cook was routed by Nick Varvais, 6-0, 6-2.

Varvais, 15, of Simi Valley, also is coached by Heinberg.

"It's the first year he's been anywhere near the top," Heinberg said of Cook. "He just got there and tightened up. He just wasn't used to it or ready for it. But the way I look at it, at least he lost to one of my other students."

All joking aside, Heinberg will be watching closely to see if Cook can bounce back.

"Every experience is a learning experience," Heinberg said. "It's very difficult . . . to be crushed like that."

More losses followed when Cook took the invitation to play in the Olympic Festival last month in Denver. He went 0-2 in singles.

Unseeded, he fell to two players from South Carolina: Tripp Phillips and Keith Burrill. Each match went three sets and the competition was formidable. Burrill likely will be seeded at USTA nationals. Phillips was seeded third at the Festival, which Cook didn't realize when he lost, 7-4, in a third-set tiebreaker.

"I'm glad I didn't know," he said. "I don't know if I would have done better or I would have got tight. But it was good for me to see that I could compete with someone who was in the top five in the nation."

And out of those defeats re-emerged Cook, the potential champion.

Heading from Denver to Columbia, S.C., Cook this week helped Southern California win its third consecutive title in the boys' 18 national intersectional team tournament.

Cook won all seven matches he played in singles and doubles during the four-day event, including a 6-7, 6-2, 7-5 victory Wednesday over Eddie Coates of Cleveland, Tenn., in the championship match against the South Section.

Cook's leap from the middle to the top of the pack began last summer.

It came after a three-set, first-round loss in the 1994 sectional to Derek Pope of Ojai. At the time, Cook was rather skinny and not particularly powerful, but he had begun a growth spurt that took him from 5 feet 9 to 6-0.

Heinberg put him on a cross-training program. Cook started lifting weights and running daily. In the fall, he withdrew from Calabasas High to start a home-study program that enabled him to spend five to six hours a day on the court.

When the 1995 season opened, out came a bigger, stronger, more confident Cook. The hard work paid off, because the University of New Mexico gave him a scholarship.

What happened to Cook in June, Heinberg said, is not unusual for a player who has reached No. 1 for the first time.

"But he's good enough to play anybody," Heinberg said. "He was small his entire junior career, then he got some size and he got some desire. That was refreshing."

Cook said he's not putting pressure on himself to win the national championship, and he is comfortable with the familiar role of the unseeded underdog. But what is most important, he understands what took him down when he was on top.

"I didn't have the fire, the spirit," he said. "I was the No. 1 seed and I was playing to protect my ranking. Why not go out and win it?

"I'm having fun right now, and I think I can pick off a lot more people in the national. I'm playing well, and I think I'm getting peaked up for Kalamazoo."

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