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 tennis memories came during his four years playing for Laguna Beach High.
"That was 16 years ago, but it seems like it was yesterday," Leach said. "I had a lot of great memories of high school tennis, playing with my friends and for my school. I wouldn't trade them for anything."
Anaheim Esperanza senior Tom Lloyd has great memories of his three years with the Aztecs. 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," said Lloyd, who is ranked 10th in Southern California in the Boys 18s division. "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."
When first-round matches in the Southern Section tennis playoffs are played next week, some of the best players in the Southland will not be participating. More and more top-level junior players are choosing not to compete for their high school teams.
Why? College scholarships are harder to earn--men's college tennis teams have only four scholarships to give--and gain in value as the cost of tuition increases. Those factors have led to private coaches, tennis academies and year-round tennis for the serious-minded. In addition to striving for college tennis scholarships, many have their eyes on a pro career.
So where does high school tennis fit in? More and more, it doesn't. It didn't fit last year for Irvine Woodbridge's David Lingman.
"The practices weren't helping my game," said Lingman, who was ranked 86th nationally last year. "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 not offering athletic scholarships, has returned to play his senior season for the Warriors.
"Now that I'm set in what I wanted to do, I wanted 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.
Artin Tafazoli of Palisades never left.
Tafazoli, ranked No. 2 in Southern California and in the top 10 nationally, is the defending City Section singles champion and recently led the Dolphins to their fifth consecutive section championship.
"It would really bother me if my school was not to do as well because I'm sitting out," said Tafazoli, a senior. "This is a chance to give back a little.
"Private coaches, guys I practice with and tournament directors, they all say, 'Why do you play? It's a waste of time.'
"But I love my school. I love helping the team win the City championship. I want to be a part of that."
Like Tafazoli, Parker Collins, Corona del Mar's No. 1 singles player, acknowledges he isn't always challenged during high school matches. But he never considered not playing high school tennis.
"I like the idea of being on a team and playing for the school," said Collins, who has committed to Washington. "When you win for your team, you do get more of a rush."
Art Wahl, who coached Leach at Laguna Beach, said fewer players are getting that rush anymore.
"High school tennis seems to have changed, starting with the mid- to late '80s," Wahl said. "It's a shame. It's hurt the quality of high school tennis.
"In the heyday of high school tennis, everybody played. I can't remember a top player not playing. I understand why kids aren't playing. Parents are spending all this money for private lessons and academies. They think, 'My youngster is going to be the one to break through.' "
Tim Mang, coach at Corona del Mar, also cited the changes in parents' attitudes since he began coaching in 1971.
"It's their kid and nobody else," Mang 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 Leach worries about.
"Once you start thinking you're too good, something's wrong," said Leach, who led the Artists to Southern Section 3-A titles in 1980 and '82.
Palisades Coach Bud Kling agrees.
"At Division I universities, the kids have to work as a social unit as well as a competitive one," said Kling, who has coached dozens of top junior players in his 19 seasons at Palisades. "They often have to give something up that benefits themselves for the betterment of the team.