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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS

Net Warriors

Adult tennis: With Wooden's book, their own masseur and a world of confidence, these geezers from Toluca Lake came prepared to win.

November 08, 1998|PAUL LIEBERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With John Wooden, a Seppo and an entourage behind us, how could our team lose?

Wooden, the UCLA basketball coaching legend, was not with us in person. One of three UCLA graduates on our team trekked to his home in Encino to get autographed copies of his book, "Wooden: A Lifetime of Reflections on and off the Court."

We weren't seeking to climb Wooden's Pyramid of Success to an NCAA basketball title. Most of never could dunk.

But we were out to make history of our own--on a different court.

Our destination was the United States Tennis Assn.'s adult league championships. The USTA also stages the U.S. Open, but no big endorsement deals ride on this competition--it's for bragging rights among the nation's club and park players.

Still, some of us had been trying for a decade to get there, and this season it took seven months of local and regional competition to become one of the 17 teams from across the nation to gather in Tucson, Ariz., for a grueling weekend of play.

Our team from Toluca Lake Tennis Club, in the shadows of Burbank Studios, earned the right to represent Southern California by besting the Orange County champion.

Now that we'd made it, we intended to be ready. Word was that Southern California teams too often fell short because of overconfidence, a tendency to assume that players from, say, Duluth, Minn., couldn't match up. So our guys entered a slew of warmup tournaments, lost a few pounds where needed and then did what it took to get Seppo Viljanen to come along.

Seppo is the club's Finnish masseur and normally he'd be spending his weekend working out the kinks on some starlet from Melrose Place. As clients, we weren't nearly as interesting as that, but we offered him a deal: We'd buy 10 massage gift certificates if he'd join us. So there he was lugging his portable table to the baggage counter at LAX for the flight to Arizona.

It was all about being ready. For as Wooden wrote, recalling his advice to any player seeking to crack the big time: "Young man, tell yourself, 'I will be prepared and then perhaps my chance will come because if it does come and I'm not ready, another chance may not come my way very soon."

THURSDAY

New York looms. Not on our flight path--we're still bound for Tucson--but on the pairings sheet.

In the first phase of competition, we're grouped with three other teams for round-robin play to determine one semifinalist.

First we play the Northern champion--North Dakota perhaps?--then Mid-Atlantic and then, on Saturday afternoon, "Eastern." We assume that's New York because a Gotham squad won the whole thing last year--a team from Central Park, no less--and because the L.A. vs. N.Y. match-up is a natural, like Sodom vs. Gomorrah.

As the plane descends, I pull out Wooden's book for guidance. A compilation of short entries ("A Leader's Difficult Task," etc.), it seems a perfect spiritual Ouija board, one I can open randomly to see what wisdom is revealed. I open to Page 152, a rumination on . . . Bill Walton's whiskers. Wooden had to instruct his red-headed All-American to get a shave or say goodbye to Westwood.

That episode does not speak to my team. Sure, sitting next to me is our own Bruin All-American, Norm Perry. But his NCAA wars were fought in tennis, four decades ago. These days, he doesn't exactly keep the barber going overtime. Indeed, we wonder whether, at 60, he'll be the oldest player at Tucson. We also wonder if we'll be the oldest team, with only one player under 38.

Our top singles player is Dr. Win Chang, a Yale graduate and an anesthesiologist. At No. 2 singles is Jason Sallin, a tall left-hander who works as a studio animator. At No. 1 doubles are Rob Coss and Richard Beharry, former community college players at Pierce and Glendale, respectively, who worked as club pros before giving in to real jobs. Then an odd-couple pairing of flashy Rene Lamart, undoubtedly the only heavyweight boxing trainer in the field, and quiet Keith Huyssoon, a financial comptroller. Finally, in the last doubles spot, computer training executive Ron Nall and Jim Mueller, a former harness driver who describes himself as "the old, lame gray-headed guy with the big, fat belly."

Mueller mashed his ankle on a sprinkler while retrieving a ball hit over a fence. But opponents should not be fooled by his limp or physique. He was an All-City Section basketball guard at North Hollywood High and played a year at UCLA in the Wooden era. Three decades later, he still can scoot.

I'm the captain. In reality, I'm like those pro wrestling managers who do all the talking and nothing else. After three knee surgeries, I've benched myself. Team members have noticed that the first year I'm not playing is the first we've made nationals. Hmmmm.

As we arrive for a practice session at Randolph Park, I size up the competition: New York has a speedy 5-foot-5 singles player. The Mid-Atlantic guys (from Richmond, Va.) like to "slice and dice." The Northern team--it's Minneapolis!--is young, and run by a woman pro.

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