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Cutting School Ties

Some of Today's Top Tennis Players Give their High School Teams the Short Shrift


Rick Leach has played 13 years on the pro tennis tour, won $3 million and six Grand Slam events as a doubles specialist and traveled to dozens of countries. But for all his success as a pro, Leach said some of his fondest memories in tennis came during his four years of playing for Laguna Beach High and Coach Art Wahl.

"That was 16 years ago, but it seems like it was yesterday," Leach said last week before flying to Hamburg to compete in the German Open. "I have a lot of great memories of high school tennis, playing with my friends and for my school. I wouldn't trade them for anything."

Esperanza senior Tom Lloyd has great memories of his three years with the Aztecs and Coach Jean Agee. But like many of today's top high school players, Lloyd is more concerned with the future than the past. He decided against playing his final year of high school tennis so he could more adequately prepare for a college career at Arizona, and a possible professional career.

"All the guys on my team are friends," Lloyd said. "But these guys are with school like I am with tennis. Tennis comes before grades with me. I figure, if this is what I'm going to be doing for the next 10 years, I better be serious about it."

Lloyd is one of the county's few highly ranked boys' players not competing for his school this year. But last year, five of the county's top 20 players decided against playing high school tennis. And in the last five years, several of the county's highly recruited Division I college players skipped at least one year of high school tennis.

Why? College scholarships are harder to earn--men's college tennis teams have only 4 1/2 scholarships to give--and gain in value as the cost of tuition increases. In addition, many have their eyes on a pro career. Those factors have led to private coaches, tennis academies and year-round tennis for the serious-minded.

So where does high school tennis fit in? More and more, it doesn't. It didn't fit last year for Woodbridge's David Lingman.

"The practices weren't helping my game," Lingman said. "It wasn't the best atmosphere for what I wanted to do with my tennis, which is eventually play professionally."

But Lingman, who recently committed to Harvard, which has a top-20 program despite the fact Ivy League schools don't offer athletic scholarships, has returned to play his senior season for the Warriors and Coach Joan Willett.

"Now that I'm set in what I want to do, I decided to come back to have fun and play for my school," said Lingman, who chose Harvard over Pepperdine.

Lingman's case is rare. Usually when players decide that training with their private coach or attending a tennis academy is more worthwhile than high school tennis, they don't return. Some even leave during the season in search of better competition. Corona del Mar Coach Tim Mang, whose team is a perennial power, had one of his best players, Hunter Jack, quit before the playoffs last year to take part in junior tournaments in Europe.

Jack was a freshman.

"It didn't hurt me personally," Mang said. "It hurt my team."

Mang figures the hole in his lineup cost his team a Southern Section championship. The Sea Kings lost the Division I title to Palos Verdes Peninsula on games.

But Mang, who began coaching high school tennis in 1971 at Edison, said high school tennis is entering a different era. More than anything, Mang said parents have changed.

"It's their kid and nobody else," he said. "Parents are spending a lot of money on tennis and they're looking at a college scholarship. But in the long run, what kind of all-around individual is coming out of that?"

That's what worries Leach.

"Once you start thinking you're too good, something's wrong," said Leach, who led the Artists to section 3-A titles in 1980 and '82. "There were definitely times when the competition wasn't that good, but that didn't matter.

"It's nice to give something back to the school. It was nice to win a CIF title for a small school like Laguna Beach that wasn't known for anything other than volleyball. We

weren't football players or anything, but we were on the tennis team and we thought we were cool."

But Lloyd said that simply wasn't the case at Esperanza.

"I enjoyed playing for the team," he said. "It's too bad not many people showed up for the matches. Nobody really knows about tennis. It's like, 'Who cares? Let's go watch basketball.' "

Lingman feels the same way.

"It's a lot more fun when all your friends show up and there's a big crowd out there, but that doesn't happen too often," he said. "The really good tennis players don't get enough recognition in high school."

That feeling of being unappreciated doesn't exist as much at Corona del Mar, where there is plenty of parent and student involvement at matches. But Mang sees it elsewhere, and he is trying to promote the sport so more kids will play tennis and be recognized for their efforts and achievements.

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