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The Family Way

Dorsey's Kendra Segura Becomes a Tennis Phenom With No Small Thanks to Her Parents' Selflessness

September 26, 1996|GREG SANDOVAL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In an area called "the Jungle," so named for the many street battles waged there between rival gangs, an automatic ball machine is spitting tennis balls with the speed of a Pete Sampras serve at Kendra Segura.

Segura, a senior at Dorsey High and one of the inner city's brightest tennis stars, is with her father, Clemon Segura, at Rancho Cienega park in southwest Los Angeles.

An Army recruiter, Clemon feeds the balls into the machine as Kendra's mother, Minh, corrals them.

"It's like we're a team," Kendra, 17, said. "They're always there to help me. A lot of kids from this area don't have it like I have it."

The Segura family could give lessons on how to keep a child competitive in a sport often the province of individuals from more affluent areas.

They have become masters at improvising, at finding out what Kendra needs and then making their limited resources work for her.

A wealthier player might have a personal trainer; Clemon or Minh often massage their daughter's sore limbs.

Others might have home tennis courts; Clemon will drive Kendra wherever they can find an open court. A private coach? Kendra has her ball machine.

To accomplish this, Kendra says, her parents have gone without.

"My parents don't go out," Segura said. "They don't take vacations or won't buy new clothes. There aren't any extravagancies. There are not that many parents that will sacrifice for their children like that. I have it real good."

Clemon Segura says that the sacrifices pay off because Kendra is competing in a sport she likes, at the level she wants. At least for now.

He acknowledges there may come a time when the patchwork won't be enough.

"It doesn't get any easier," he said. "When you talk about the next level, you're talking about air fare, hotel accommodations and $60-an-hour coaches. There aren't many places that you can come by that kind of money other than family funds."

Kendra started playing tennis at 8, after trying swimming and other sports. She soon began competing in junior tournaments and quickly rose in the rankings. She was ranked in the top five in the 10-and-under age group in Southern California.

Remembering her early tournaments, Segura says she stood out from the other kids, the only African American girl, dressed in her outdated tennis dress and beat-up tennis shoes, playing with an obsolete racket.

The coolness she felt from the other players she says was more about money than race.

There were times no one talked to her, not even to argue calls during matches.

"It was OK. I didn't want friends," Segura says now. "I had friends. I wanted to win. They thought that because I didn't have the latest clothes and equipment that I couldn't play. But I always believed that I could play with any of them."

Her coaches say Kendra oozed confidence at an early age.

"She was always a tough-minded girl," said Richard Williams, who runs the California Tennis Assn. and coached Kendra in her early clinics. "You could see she had desire. Other girls would get intimidated facing players who came from well-to-do homes, but not her."

Delana Daniels, one of Kendra's closest friends and another of the city's top players, said when they began playing in junior tournaments, it was difficult being looked down on by the other kids.

"Being rejected makes you stronger," said Daniels, a senior at Hamilton. "Kendra was competitive and smart. We didn't say anything when the other kids acted like that. We learned to control our emotions, learned to control our tempers."

Segura first played her way into the local spotlight in 1993 as a freshman, after upsetting Brahna Pastorini from Woodland Hills Taft for the City Section's individual title.

Pastorini, the daughter of former NFL quarterback Dan Pastorini, was 41-0 in City Section matches going into the finals. Kendra was an unknown freshman. She says it was one of the biggest victories of her career.

"[Pastorini] looked like she could play in the NFL," Segura said. "She was big and had a big serve. I've not played anybody yet who had a serve like hers. She beat me in the first set, and then I started timing her. I started returning her serve and then she had to play. I knew I had her."

Since winning the city title, Segura has battled through several injuries.

As a sophomore, she lost in the finals to Julia Feldman from Taft while suffering from tendinitis in her elbow and last year tendinitis in her shoulder forced her to pull out of the city tournament.

She is currently ranked 62nd in Southern California in the 18-and-under age group, largely because injuries have limited her tournament play in the last two years.

But her comeback is on track, according to Segura. She won the fifth L.A. Summer Junior tournament in August and says her injuries are slowly healing.

While the medical costs have been another burden, Clemon believes the family will be able to provide what Kendra needs to continue. He believes his daughter's future is bright. She has several scholarship offers and plans to play in college.

Clemon said: "She tells me the other day, 'Daddy, I started high school a champion, I want to go out a champion.' "

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Prep Tennis at a Glance

Dates of major and championship tournament finals:

* Oct. 5--Racquet Centre junior tournament at Studio City Racquet Centre

* Oct. 19--Southern California doubles championships at Los Caballeros Sports Village, Fountain Valley

* Nov. 22--City Section team championships at Studio City Racquet Centre

* Nov. 26--Southern Section team championships, TBA

* Dec. 5--Southern Section individual championships, TBA

* Dec. 13--City Section individual championships at the Studio City Racquet Centre

The top five players in Southern California:

1. Zuzana Stunova (Rio Mesa)

2. Faye DeVera (Villa Park)

3. Ilona Kordonskaya (Palisades)

4. Nina Vaughan (Corona del Mar)

5. Natalie Exon (Woodbridge)

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