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She Has to Work at It This Time Around

Tennis: Denson managed to win with ease two years ago, but now it takes a great deal of effort and her newfound desire.

September 12, 1996|DAVE McKIBBEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

IRVINE — Sarah Denson has been away from high school tennis for two years, and she will understand if some players and coaches don't welcome her back with open arms.

"I was a brat," she said with a chuckle. "A loudmouth and a brat. I managed to win, but when I wasn't winning, I was a brat."

The fact that she managed to win still mystifies Denson. She didn't train much, she didn't practice much, she didn't care enough, but she did win.

In fact, twice she won the singles title in the Sea View League--probably the toughest girls' tennis league in Orange County. She also won her share of junior tennis matches, earning a top 10 ranking in Southern California at 14.

She won and then she gradually dropped out of sight, and nearly out of the rankings.

Denson said her downfall began on a soccer field.

"It's all been so fast, so blurred together," she says. "I wish I could start over. If I could, I wouldn't have played soccer."

Though Denson might not have had the knack for soccer that she did for tennis, she seemed to have the passion. Maybe too much. Denson broke her thumb playing soccer as a freshman and then broke her leg as a sophomore, a few weeks after winning her second Sea View League singles title.

The injury ended Denson's soccer career and took the steam out of her tennis career. She continued playing junior tennis tournaments but opted not to play high school tennis for Irvine her junior year.

"I was really into hanging out with my friends," Denson said. "I was totally out of it. I was just being lazy more than anything."

Denson also was realizing that she didn't like playing tennis. "I never had much desire the whole time I played tennis," she said. "It came really easy to me. While everyone else was practicing every day for hours, I'd only practice maybe three, four hours a week."

Finally, Denson realized she had to start taking tennis seriously if she was going to get anywhere. So she convinced herself and her parents that a tennis academy was the right place to start. In November of her junior season, Denson left for Palmer Tennis Academy in Tampa, Fla.

By May, Denson was back in Southern California more discouraged than ever.

"Before my [broken leg], it came so easy," she said. "When I came back, it was so hard. I wasn't used to it."

Denson also wasn't used to feeling so inferior.

"I thought it'd be good to get away and have tennis be a priority, but they didn't even acknowledge me there. I had to work so hard just to get noticed. I got put on the lower courts with the 14-year-olds. You can't believe how depressing that is. It just overtakes your body."

Since returning to California, Denson said she has been overtaken by the tennis bug. She says she owes much of her enthusiasm and newfound desire to her new coach, Chris Ganz, who runs the Ganz Academy in Huntington Beach.

"I actually know what it's like to have desire to play," Denson said. "It's really weird."

Ganz, who has worked with Denson for six months, said he has heard all about Denson's past but he's having a hard time believing the stories.

"She seems to respect me and that really helps," Ganz said. "She's not only playing for herself, but she's playing for me too. She doesn't want to let me down."

Much of Denson's motivation these days is a college tennis scholarship. She is planning a recruiting trip to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Ganz said UC Irvine has shown interest.

"She wants it real bad," he said. "She's in great shape. She's a rock. I call her a tree stump. She's built like a Michael Chang."

Denson, whose ranking has dropped to 52, has been frantically trying to make up for lost time by training five days a week at the Ganz Academy.

"I still feel like a top 20 player," she said. "I'm not worrying as much about my ranking as I am about how I'm playing."

Ganz said Denson can still play. "She's good," he said. "She's damn good. We play mixed doubles together and she's one of the few girls who can handle a man's serve. There's so much talent there."

Just how much talent there is probably will be answered in the next few months. While playing No. 1 singles for Irvine High this fall, Denson will face some of the top players in Southern California. Some she remembers--such as Corona del Mar's Nina Vaughan and Woodbridge's Natalie Exon--and some she has never seen.

Irvine Coach Ann Gillespie said she's happy to see Denson back.

"The girls still really respect and like her," said Gillespie, who welcomed Denson back to practice on Monday. "She seems more mature now. I really hope it works."

Gillespie said Denson should help an Irvine team that failed to win a league match last season.

"I don't think the girls are as excited about having the points in the lineup as they are about having her back," Gillespie said. "She's a fun kid."

A fun kid who has been through a lot in the last two years.

"It's been a pretty interesting couple years," Denson said. "I just hope this is my lucky time."

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