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Hardcore on Hard Court

Relentless Baseline Attack Translates Into Tennis Victories for La Quinta's Chu

April 20, 1999|DAVE McKIBBEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There is a lot to like about La Quinta High junior Robert Chu's tennis game--his whipping top-spin forehands that clear the net by six feet then tumble down and land four feet inside the baseline, his sizzling service returns, his go-for-broke style.

And then there is his heart.

Tennis is not a contact sport, but it is physically demanding. Witness last year's Southern Section individual singles tournament: In a second-round match against University's Greg Biorkman, Chu trailed 5-1 and 40-0 in the third set and his wiry, almost stick-figure body had given out on him. A pulled stomach muscle limited him to underhand serves and leg cramps severely limited his movement.

But Chu--all 5-foot-11, 150 pounds of him--refused to give in to the pain. Somehow, he fought off three match points and came back to beat Biorkman, 7-6. The bad news was that he had an only hour's rest before facing Los Alamitos' Cody Jackson, a higher-seeded player than Biorkman. Chu led briefly before falling, 6-4, 6-2.

"That was a tough day for me, probably the toughest I've had in tennis," Chu said. "I played well. I was just fatigued. I wanted to win so bad. It was CIF and all. I want to show people what I have so badly."

With last year's injury behind him, Chu is showing people plenty this season. He has won 35 of 36 sets in dual matches, losing only to Jackson, 6-4, after being up, 4-2.

He's also making his way up the Southern California Tennis Assn. junior rankings. Chu, who recently turned 17, is ranked 36th in his first year in the SCTA boys' 18s and he finished last year ranked seventh in the boys' 16 division. He was ranked 42nd nationally in the boys' 16s.

Chu couldn't be peaking at a better time. The prestigious Ojai tournament begins Thursday and Chu is entered in the boys' interscholastic division. Ojai is not a bad place to show your stuff, considering a slew of Pac-10 and Big West coaches are in town with their teams.

"I want to play my game and concentrate," Chu said. "But I want to impress the coaches too."

Last year, Chu reached the round of 16 in the boys' interscholastic singles before losing to nationally ranked John Paul Fruttero of San Marino. This year Chu has his sights set higher.

"I'm looking to win it," he said. "There's no one up there that's that much better than me."

That kind of talk is typical of Chu, according to La Quinta's first-year coach, Chris Ganz, who was Chu's private coach until last summer.

"He's intimidating," Ganz said. "He has that attitude on the court. He's not afraid of anything or anybody and I love that about him."

Ganz has loved "Chuey" ever since he saw him swing a racket.

"He was a 13-year-old whose father was his only coach," Ganz said. "He was just this short, chubby kid. But boy could he hit the ball. I thought, 'This kid's got a lot of talent.' He's been like a sponge. He's taken everything in that I've taught him."

Ganz said it hasn't been hard to identify with Chu's game.

"It's like playing a mirror when we hit with each other," said Ganz, who played at Long Beach State from 1987-90. "It's scary. He even has a body like mine."

And it's no accident that Chu plays like Ganz.

"I teach my students to play my game," said Ganz, who plays open tournaments and is entered in the men's open at Ojai. "I just hope they play it a little better than me."

Chu, like Ganz, isn't much of a volleyer. But then, when he plays his attacking, ground stroke style the right way, volleys aren't necessary.

"I'm a baseliner," Chu said. "The only time I go to the net is when I have a good approach shot."

Chu is the only tournament player on La Quinta's team, but he's not the only player with a good work-ethic and some talent. The Aztecs have won 11 of their first 12 matches, losing only to second-ranked Los Alamitos, and they appear to be on their way to the Garden Grove League title and a high seeding in the Division III playoffs.

"We never get any recognition for tennis, but this year I think we have a chance to win our division," Chu said. "I think we're going to surprise some people. I'm surprised we're not ranked [in Orange County]."

Chu said much of the credit for the program's resurgence should go to Ganz, one of the county's top private coaches for juniors.

"He knows how to make players better," Chu said. "He's actually a little overqualified for the position."

Ganz said he's happy to be able to help.

"These are great kids here and I figured, if I'm going to coach high school, I might as well coach one of my kids," Ganz said. "I think it'll be a big advantage as we get to CIF [individuals].

"Last year, all I could do was sit and watch as Robert went through all of that. It was painful. This year, I'll be able to sit down on the court with him and help him. It'll make a big difference."

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