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Party. Tennis. Match.

Plush O.C. facilities, fabulous prizes and the chance to mingle with pros mark the annual Adoption Guild tournament. It's a deucedly good time--and it serves charity too.

May 28, 1997|PAUL LIEBERMAN | Times Staff Writer

Sitting on the veranda of the Balboa Bay Club Racquet Club, Ed Lowman is fretting, fretting, fretting. For three courts down, two pals of his--a man and woman team--are losing, losing, losing.

As he watches the sad scene from under his straw hat, Lowman's concern is a simple one. "This," he says, "could spoil the party. And that would be a bummer."

Ah, yes it would. For this is one tennis tournament where Lowman brings not two cans of balls, but two magnums of champagne.

It's time again for the Adoption Guild Tennis Tournament. The 36th time, to be exact, for the event that became the model of the charity play-and-party tennis affairs.

Play and party. Party and play. It's like the chicken and the egg. It's hard to say which came first. Except that whichever was at the event's core at its inception, the play or the partying, it sure wasn't big, not like now, when it takes over four of the area's sprawling private tennis clubs--three in Newport Beach and one in Irvine--for two weekends, drawing everyone from name pros to, well, the Ed Lowmans. "There is," he declared, "nothing like it."

There were just 68 entrants in 1961, when local tennis enthusiasts decided to stage a doubles tournament as a modest fund-raiser for the Holy Family Services Counseling and Adoption Agency in Santa Ana. In those days, the problem it addressed, helping what were then called "unwed mothers," seemed modest too. The problem, and the event, grew together.

By 1966, 363 teams entered in the Adoption Guild tournament, and the roster included players like Billie Jean King. Two decades later, in 1988, the event drew an astounding 1,050 doubles teams, solidifying its reputation as the largest tournament of its type anywhere.

Though the number of entrants has dropped quite a bit since that peak of the tennis boom, down to the 500 range, that's partly because there now are competitors.

Earlier in the spring, many in the same crowd flock to the Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades for a tournament that benefits the Boy Scouts. Then, at the end of summer, it's back to Orange County for the CHOC affair, which benefits the Children's Hospital of Orange County.

There are, of course, oodles of other tennis tournaments. But most, like the ones sponsored by the United States Tennis Assn. and its local arm, the Southern Calif. Tennis Assn., are no-nonsense affairs.

What's more, the official tennis association events are often held in public parks. Sometimes with slick, dusty courts. Sometimes with holes in the nets. Sometimes with apartment complexes ringing the courts.

The Adoption Guild's entry fee of $100 per team, in contrast, gets you two weekends at the Palisades Tennis Club (which recently hosted a Davis Cup match); the Newport Beach Tennis Club (with three dining areas--two outdoors, one indoors--overlooking center court); the Balboa Bay Club Racquet Club (scene in recent years of the gala party); and finally, the Racquet Club of Irvine (which has not only conventional hard courts but also clay courts and Astroturf courts and . . . you get the idea).

Then there are the prizes. In most tournaments, that means a conventional trophy featuring a plastic tennis figure posed in the serving position--the sort of abomination 13-year-old kids love to display in their room but which most adults stuff in a drawer.

But here? Listen to one of Lowman's friends, Elizabeth Altieri, recall the reward for winning one of the lower divisions in women's doubles a few years ago:

"Let's see, you get a crystal serving plate. By Tiffany. And your name on a perpetual trophy. And your photo in the next year's tournament program. And they come out to center court with a bottle of champagne and four glasses. Why do you think we keep coming back?"

*

Such rewards, though, and the prestige of the title, mean that one should not be misled by the fact that this is doubles, the generally social game most folks actually play when they play tennis for fun. This is a competitive crowd--make no mistake about it. Most tennis players flee in the other direction when they hear what one club pro here calls the "T-word," for tournament--especially one that is outside the safe confines of their own club, where at least they know the enemy. Here any stranger in white shorts could be the messenger of total humiliation.

Except in the lowest divisions, which include some beginning players, the Adoption Guild pairings sheets are filled with experienced, zealous competitors--including teaching pros, club champions and former college players. Players are matched according to ratings, beginning at the 3.5 level in this tournament, on up. In the Open division (which offers healthy prize money--$5,000--in addition to the Tiffany plate), pro players and college All-Americans tend to dominate.

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