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THE INSIDE TRACK | DIANE PUCIN

Tennis Is His Sport, but Coaching Is His Racket

November 15, 1998

Once, Earthna Jacquet played tennis with the Panchos, Segura and Gonzalez, in Exposition Park. At least as long as the quarters for the meter held out.

Once, Earthna Jacquet worked seven or eight months of the year, manual labor in a warehouse, and saved his money so he could quit working for four or five months and chase a sport. It was an unlikely sport for a young African American man who lived in the projects and couldn't afford college or fancy clothes, or the best equipment, or any coaching at all.

Tennis.

That was Jacquet's sport. That is still Jacquet's sport.

Jacquet didn't pick up a racket until he was 17. It was on a dare from a friend who had lost to Jacquet in just about every other sport.

"He told me to try tennis, that I wouldn't beat him in that," Jacquet says from his tidy home off Century Boulevard not so far from LAX. "He was right. I got killed. But I got hooked."

He is 70 now. He and his wife, Gloria, have raised four children. Two sons, twin daughters.

It was his commitment to do well by his family and be able to retire early that caused Jacquet to quit tennis when he was 29.

"Put the racket down for good," Jacquet said. "Haven't played since."

But that's not exactly true. Maybe Jacquet hasn't played a tennis match in 40 years. Maybe he hasn't played two sets. Maybe he hasn't entered a tournament or hit hundreds of practice balls. But Jacquet has done something much more important with his knowledge of a sport that has been considered off-limits for so many kids in the neighborhoods where Jacquet has lived.

Jacquet has become a tennis coach. A darn good tennis coach. He once tutored Venus Williams on the art of the serve. But it is not the top-of-the-line talent that Jacquet is after.

Instead he takes on the regular kids, kids who come to Centinela Park with some talent and some will but without the means to join a tennis club. Jacquet, for absolutely nothing in return, spends his afternoons and evenings standing on a tennis court, hands on hips, shouting instructions, throwing out tennis balls, grabbing an arm and moving it to the proper position.

For himself, Jacquet wants only to know that his tennis pupil is also doing his schoolwork and is willing to practice the skills that Jacquet is handing out free.

"I wish that all of the pro athletes from the inner cities who make it in their sports would do one thing," Jacquet says. "I wish that they would pick a high school in the city and volunteer three hours every couple weeks. Six hours a month, that's all. Talk to teams, talk to kids, help them. You don't think that would make a difference, some big-time athlete coming back to the neighborhood, helping out?"

Jacquet gives away many more than six hours a month and he believes deeply in the importance of the need for strong male presences in the inner cities.

"I may have grown up in the projects, but there were males around as role models," he says.

It is of no importance to Jacquet whether the boys and girls he teaches ever become tennis stars. Much more important to him, so important that his eyes get misty when he speaks of it, are these examples--Akida Mashaka, who comes from Cerritos and who is now in Harvard Law School; Jason Clark ("He was good enough to play in the pros if he'd only been able to get some real financial support," Jacquet says), a graduate of Morehouse College and a minister.

Gloria, who has lived with multiple sclerosis for more than 20 years and who says proudly, "I've never needed a wheelchair to get around," smiles indulgently at her husband's second career.

As he had promised, Earthna retired at 58 from his first career as a freight truck driver. He was able to retire because Gloria, despite her illness, also had worked full time as a nurse.

"My husband is a different person after he gets back from his time on the tennis courts," Gloria says. "He is a better person. Some of his players have come to live with us for a while. Some of them come back to us at Thanksgiving and Christmas. They all keep in touch and he really does make a difference."

Jacquet, whose second cousin is noted jazz saxophonist Illinois Jacquet, will stand in front of a mirror with his old wooden racket and practice his service motion. He will sit in the living room after a teaching session, "just thinking. Thinking of different things to bring to a particular person at their next lesson."

Gloria wishes Jacquet would at least ask the pupils to bring their own tennis balls.

"But he won't do that either," she says.

Earthna says he gets leftover balls from tournaments or otherwise buys them himself.

Which is no different from his old playing days. Jacquet had become good enough to get free rackets from equipment companies. But they came without strings, and tennis gut was expensive. So he took his new, free rackets to a sporting-goods store and traded for rackets that were used, but strung.

"Never been much funding for minorities in this sport," Jacquet says. "But it doesn't matter. I just keep teaching."

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