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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS | DAVID WHARTON / TENNIS

Junior Circuit Can Become a Parent Trap

June 27, 1998|DAVID WHARTON

FOUNTAIN VALLEY — They hover at courtside. Sometimes they sit in folding chairs. Sometimes they are too nervous to sit.

It isn't easy being a tennis parent.

"This is your child," said Helen Amritraj, whose son Stephen is a ranked player in the 14-and-under division. "It's hard when you are watching him. It's an emotional thing."

There's an awful lot of emotion flowing at Los Caballeros Sports Village, scene of the Southern California Junior Sectional Championships this week. The tournament brings together most of the best young tennis players in the area . . . and most of their parents.

They mill about in wide-brimmed hats and visors.

They keep point-by-point statistics on clipboards.

They hurry to refill water jugs for their children between sets.

"They are really dedicated," Amritraj said. "It is a major, major commitment."

Much of the work takes place behind the scenes. Parents ferry their sons and daughters to afternoon practices with hitting partners. They bring the kids home from weeknight sessions with coaches at clubs throughout Southern California.

"Every day," said Connie Yim of Glendale, whose son Robert is also a 14-and-under player. "Picking him up from school, driving him far way."

Said Amritraj: "We live in Calabasas so it's at least an hour drive to anywhere. That's all we do. I've stopped giving dinner parties."

Often, parents endure the pangs of separation when their children tour with national teams during the summer or attend distant tennis academies.

Jack O'connor's son, Sean, spends as many as five nights a week with his coach in Sylmar, far from the family's South Bay home.

And the costs add up. With lessons and racquets and shoes, not to mention gasoline and airline tickets, the tab can run as high as $20,000 a year, some parents said.

All this sacrifice comes to a head at tournament time, and the results are not always pretty.

Sometimes parents must suffer their children's embarrassing outbursts on court. O'connor hates it when Sean swears, which the 18-and-under player does occasionally.

"He hasn't completely grown up," O'connor said.

Sometimes young players must suffer the embarrassing outbursts of their parents.

"I've seen parents who yell at their kids," said Chew Joe of Thousand Oaks, whose son Darren plays in 18-and-under. "I've seen parents get into fights with each other. It gets kind of brutal out here."

In the emotional caldron of competition, he believes the trick for both player and parent is to maintain a poker face.

"When I do react, I make sure he's not looking," Joe said. "I've also learned not to talk to him too soon after a heart-breaking loss.

"I usually take him to McDonald's and let him cool down. We have something to eat, then we talk."

After Darren lost in the round of 16 on Thursday, Chew waited nearby for 10 minutes. Then he walked over and gently massaged his son's shoulders. They spoke in quiet tones.

"There are lots of ups and downs," Chew said.

Apparently, it never gets easier. Just ask Amritraj, whose husband Anand is a touring professional.

"I watched him for so many years," she said. "Now I'm watching my son. It's a lot harder watching my son."

But for all the heartache and expense, Yim says she cherishes the time with Robert. And, for all the hours spent fidgeting nervously courtside, it doesn't hurt being a fan of the game.

"I like tennis," Yim said. "I enjoy watching."

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