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GIRLS' TENNIS

Nguyen Plans to Be Pro-Active

September 26, 2000|DAVE McKIBBEN

Kim Nguyen always considered the Southern Section individual tournament to be one of the most significant of her tennis year. Nguyen, who reached at least the round of 16 each of her first three years at Saddleback High, took the event so seriously that she always tried to peak for the early December tournament.

But now that Nguyen is a senior, her priorities have changed. She has decided to skip her senior year of high school to devote her time and energy toward a professional career. Nguyen, who will take independent study courses and graduate with her class in June, said she can't afford to look back.

"I kind of felt bad toward the coach at Saddleback [Mike Conover]," said Nguyen, The Times' Orange County player of the year in 1997. "But there's no other choice for me now. I'm looking out for my future."

Nguyen said her immediate future might not include college tennis, even though she is being recruited by UCLA and UC Irvine.

"I'm thinking about going pro first and then going to college later," she said. "You can go to college any time."

Although she is ranked only 13th in Southern California in the girls' 18 division, Nguyen rates her game much higher than that.

"I've been working real hard on my game and I know my strokes are there physically," she said. "But my mental game is not quite there yet. Mentally, I'm still a junior player."

Nguyen learned that last week, when she lost a three-set match to Debbie Graham, a former top-30 singles player who retired from the tour last month. Nguyen was able to beat Graham in a practice match. But when they met in the second round of the CHOC tournament Saturday, Graham was the more consistent player.

"She handled the pressure better than me and she has a bigger game than I do," Nguyen said. "After the second set, I kind of broke down. Debbie never lost her composure even after losing the first set."

But Nguyen said there were some positive signs.

"I was on the offense most of the match," she said. "It makes me think I'm a step closer to where I need to be."

Graham said Nguyen should probably not use their match as a gauge.

"I'm not playing much singles anymore and I didn't play very well at all," Graham said. "I'm playing for fun these days."

As a former top-ranked junior who played high school tennis at La Quinta and was a four-year star at Stanford, Graham wonders if Nguyen is getting ahead of herself.

"I'm really disappointed when a family takes someone out of school," she said. "I think you miss out on a lot, especially the socialization. You can't get that youth back.

"It's just so difficult to make it nowadays. I always think it's best to try to be the best in your age group before you step up. You need to be smart about it."

Nguyen said her ranking isn't as high as it could be because she hasn't been playing many junior tournaments. In May, she played in the Roxy/Quiksilver National Open and won the consolation bracket. She didn't enter the USTA Nationals in San Jose because of an ankle injury.

Over the summer, she played open tournaments and a few pro events. In the Acura Opportunity tournament--a pre-qualifier for the pro tournament in La Costa--Nguyen defeated San Marino's Luana Magnani, 7-5, 6-3. Magnani, who ousted Nguyen from the section individuals in 1998 and '99, is the top-ranked 18-year-old in Southern California.

This fall, Nguyen plans to play open tournaments and some pro satellites, and train with her coach, Loren Peters, a former UCLA player. In the spring, she will play the Ojai junior tournament, which she won as a 16-year-old and almost won last year, losing in the 18s final to Erin Burdette.

Nguyen's best showing at the section individuals was in 1997, when she reached the semifinals as a freshman.

"It would have been nice to play for the title this year," she said, "but I didn't get the chance."

LOOKING AHEAD

Mater Dei, off to a 2-1 start despite losing top players Melissa Esmero and Mary Hung to graduation, will be severely tested this week.

Today and Wednesday, the Monarchs are on the road at 10th-ranked Villa Park (2-3) and fourth-ranked Woodbridge (3-2). Mater Dei, led by No. 1 singles player Casey Knutson, opens Serra League play Thursday against Rosary at the Fullerton Tennis Center.

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If you have an item or idea for the tennis report, you can fax us at (714) 966-5663 or e-mail us at david.mckibben@latimes.com

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