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UNFORCED ERA : The Whole World Beckons, but These Tennis Players Resist the Pull

May 23, 1996|GREG SANDOVAL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Anyone involved in tennis has heard the horror stories. The ones about young players pushed into the sport by overbearing parents, the kids left in the hands of single-minded coaches interested only in winning.

Jose Lieberman, a member of the Beverly Hills High tennis team and the nation's second-ranked player in the boys' 16-and-under division, says the image is wrong for most.

"I play for myself," said Lieberman, a sophomore. "I don't play for anyone else--not coaches, friends, my parents, nobody. The only person who should be upset when I lose is me. My parents have never pushed me."

But Lieberman says he occasionally practices with a younger player whose parents might be a little too intense about their son's game.

"I mean we just hit the ball with one another, it's not a big deal," Lieberman said. "After every point he loses, he turns to see what they're doing. I hate it. I can feel the stress he's under."

Lieberman, Andrew Park of San Marino and Amanda Basica of Palos Verdes Peninsula High are some of the best junior players in the country, and all say they are leading great lives. They frequently fly to tournaments in such places as Florida or Australia, they work hard to maintain their grades, they participate on their high school teams and, occasionally, they hang out with friends.

They acknowledge there is pressure and that they often have to make sacrifices for tennis, leaving little time for talking on the phone or hanging out at the mall. They understand that to eventually become professionals, such sacrifices are necessary. And they claim they wouldn't give up their goals for anything.

Basica, a senior, is the top-ranked player in the girls' 18-and-under division. She has played on the U.S. national junior team the last three years and has traveled to Paris, Japan and Australia for competitions.

"How many kids get to go to those places?" Basica, 17, said. "My Mom was like, 'Gosh, I was already married when I first got to travel Europe, and you've got to go before you turned 18.' "

Lieberman, 15, will represent the United States in three junior international tournaments beginning next week. For three weeks in Italy and France, he'll compete against some of the world's best players his age, eating crepes near the Seine and exploring Roman ruins.

He will also miss the last three weeks of the school year.

Some top junior players rely on tutors or correspondence courses instead of high school to concentrate fully on tennis, but school is important to Lieberman, Park and Basica, and they work hard to keep up.

"I've already missed 18 to 20 days of school this semester," Lieberman said. "I made up everything, but I'll miss my finals because of this trip. It's tough. They [school administrators] were a little reluctant to let me go this time, but finally they saw it as a great opportunity for me."

Lieberman's 3.8-grade point average makes missing a few days a little easier.

Park, 16, is the top-ranked player in the country in his age group, and although only a sophomore, he is being compared to Pete Sampras and Michael Chang. He said he would miss more school because of tennis if he didn't turn down some invitations.

Park is the sports editor of his school's newspaper and has a weighted GPA of 4.3. He is selective about the matches he plays and limits the ones that conflict with school.

Jim Hillman, director of junior tennis for the Southern California Tennis Assn., said that his organization asked Park to play in the Maze Cup, a tournament between players from Southern California and Northern California. Park, who had a test scheduled for the week of the competition, declined.

"I was also invited to play in Europe like Jose, but I turned that down," Park said. "I would have missed too much school."

If that sounds like a lot of self-discipline for a teenager, it's nothing compared to how he regulates his time each day.

After school, he practices one to three hours, goes home, showers, eats and then starts his homework. Weekends are spent playing in matches. Park understands that is the cost of being a successful player.

But not all of it.

According to Park's coach, Rusty Miller, the cost of private lessons, clinics, travel, hotel and food and equipment can add up to about $25,000 a year for one player.

"I'm expensive," said Miller, who operates five tennis academies in Southern California. "I charge a dollar a minute and $300 a month in academy fees. And a top player needs private lessons. The academies are like the school, and the private lessons are like tutoring."

Money is also a problem when it comes to whether the players should join the professional tour.

The huge amounts being made by some pros lure many players toward the tour and away from college.

Miller said that there was a girl in his program who listened to too many people when it came to judging her talent and deciding what to do with her future. She decided to skip school and take her chances on the tour.

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