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LABOR AND LIVES

Acing a Delayed Goal

Tennis pro Troy Collins got game early on; now he has a degree too.

September 09, 1998|SCOTT MARTELLE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Troy Collins has a career strewn with successes. Junior tennis championships while growing up in South-Central Los Angeles. A full athletic scholarship to San Diego State. Fourteen years earning a living as a midlevel player on the professional tennis circuit. And, now, a job as a teaching pro at a private tennis club.

But the highlight of his career came this spring when he walked across the stage at Los Angeles Southwest College to receive a two-year associate's degree that was nearly 20 years in the making.

"That was the proudest moment of my life," says Collins, 38, sitting courtside at Sunny Hills Racquet Club in Fullerton. "To see the gleam in my father's eye when I said, 'Hey, Dad, I've taken care of this'--which is all a parent really wants. They didn't work hard all those years back then [just] for me to be a great tennis player."

Collins' return to school--he plans to eventually seek a bachelor's degree in administration-- has left him with one foot in each of two courts, as a student and a teacher.

As the teaching pro at Sunny Hills, Collins says, he earns around the middle of an industry range of $40,000 to $80,000 per year. His job entails spending hours each day instructing tennis buffs of all ages in everything from basics to intricacies of the game. Students such as Lisa Howell, for whom time on the court is a change of pace from hours spent running her florist shop.

On a recent day, Collins helped Howell and three friends prepare for a doubles tournament at the club. The hourlong lesson cost the four women $80.

Howell met Collins, whom she describes as "intense," shortly after he started at the club. He quickly became her favorite instructor.

"I love intense people because I feel like I'm kind of intense," she says. "When I pay money to have a lesson, I want somebody to work my tail off.

And he makes you feel like you're playing professional tennis, like this is the most important thing in the world."

Collins, who describes Howell as one of the club's better players, finds satisfaction helping Howell and others improve their game.

"Being able to give and also being able to see a person get the fullness and the most enjoyment of the game," he says. "Hopefully, that's why they're in it."

His biggest satisfaction comes from working with young athletes, he says.

"To be able to pass on positive knowledge to young minds is a fantastic feeling," Collins says. "These are going to be our future leaders, and it's really rewarding to share knowledge with them because knowledge ultimately is power."

He teaches by example, he says, holding up his own decision 15 years ago to turn pro before he'd received the implied promise of his tennis scholarship: a degree.

"I was pretty much a typical, non-applying athlete in college," Collins says. "Academics--that was just something to toy around with."

*

Going back to school has, in a sense, united the disparate parts of himself.

In each class, he says, "I learned something new or reconfirmed something. It's just great exercise for the mind. It stimulates the mind and helps me to be positive."

To put it another way, tennis once consumed Collins' life. Now it's just part of it--an important part, fulfilling and rewarding, but only a part.

Collins grew up in South-Central Los Angeles, the son of a veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars who went on to a 30-year career with the U.S. Postal Service. His mother is a career civil servant in the city of Los Angeles' personnel department.

"I had a support system . . . Not everybody had that," says Collins, who lives in Gardena with his wife and three children. "I had a Rock of Gibraltar. There was no alcohol in the house. My mother took us to church four times a week. I had to succeed."

Collins picked up a racquet when he was 8 1/2, when an Arthur Ashe-backed clinic arrived in his neighborhood in the late '60s.

"I knew from the first ball I hit that I wanted to be a tennis pro," he says. "I wanted to be like Jimmy Connors and Arthur Ashe. At that time, tennis was out in the media, on TV, so there was a bit of stardom involved."

*

His parents' support--from finding the best coaches to instilling in him basic lessons in civility--kept him on track.

Tennis became an outlet for more than adolescent energy.

"Every day I stepped on the court it was a victory, whether I won or lost, because I was able to use tennis as an instrument in bettering my condition, although it wasn't that bad to begin with," Collins says. "The notion of getting out is still there, and that was my tool."

Athletics helped him focus on goals, helped him pick out a path. He sees in athletics a chance for kids to find joy in their lives, to give themselves purpose.

As he talks, Collins reveals a streak of political conservatism that has been developing in recent years. Christian beliefs also permeate his life. He, his wife, Sylvia, and their three daughters regularly join his parents and extended family for Sunday church services.

"I've tried everything else," he says. "This [religious faith] is what works for me."

As does tennis.

"Of course I still love this," says Collins on a break from a lesson. "I don't do anything at this stage of my life [for which] joy isn't the underlying factor.

"How can you be successful at any endeavor if your heart isn't into it? And the heart needs joy."

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