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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS

In Rettenmaier's Tennis, Love Takes On Greater Meaning

UCLA sophomore carries on without his mother, who inspired him to play the game.

April 28, 2001|STEVE PRATT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OJAI — Every time Travis Rettenmaier picks up his tennis racket, his greatest loves are united.

Tennis is his passion and his mother's love his strength, but now the court serves as a reminder that he must go it alone.

Rettenmaier's mother Karen died in October, but he's thankful memories of her remain strong.

"There was a special bond between me and my mom because of tennis," said Rettenmaier, a 17-year-old UCLA sophomore who grew up in Camarillo.

"She made so many sacrifices for me. One of the bad things--but one of the best things--is that she lived through me. I was her pride. She had so much enthusiasm for my tennis."

Rettenmaier's dreams of winning a title at the 101st Ojai tournament were dashed Friday when he lost in the quarterfinals of the Pac-10 Invitational singles division.

But throughout the rest of the season, Karen Dawson Rettenmaier will be there--the little voice in his head, the parental coach spun from a career on the pro tour . . . the nudge of a mother.

The only difference at Ojai this year was the empty seat in the stands. And these stands are particularly significant.

Rettenmaier, the youngest--and shortest--player in the field, cruised to the Junior boys' 14-and-under championship at age 11, instantly making him a player to watch on the competitive Southern California junior circuit.

Not all his teammates understand what it means to play at Ojai.

"You know the [outsiders]. They have no idea what Ojai is all about," Rettenmaier said. "They say, 'It's just another tournament.' I say, 'Watch it, buddy. You have no idea what this tournament means to me.' "

UCLA men's Coach Billy Martin remembers Rettenmaier gutting out a victory on that warm April day.

"I loved his fighting and competitive spirit," Martin said. "I knew that day I wanted him to play for UCLA."

After his improbable Ojai victory--in which he told reporters he would not only win all four major Grand Slam tournaments one day, but in the same year--it was off to Florida's Saddlebrook Tennis Academy, where he and his mother formed an inseparable bond while father Tom and sister Bettina remained in California.

Travis said there wasn't a thing his mother wouldn't do for him--always a mother first and tennis motivator second.

"It could be anything," said Travis, whose mother reached the top 100 on tour. "I could get up at 3 in the morning and say, 'Mom, I want some chicken soup,' and she would say, 'OK.'

"There were times I didn't want to get up at 6:30 and do my runs, and she wouldn't force me, but say, 'OK, but I bet your opponent is,' and that's all it would take. Whatever it was she would do for me. We had such a good time together."

And it nearly fell apart.

"She was his biggest fan," his father said. "I think [her death] really slowed him down for awhile. He was an emotional wreck. He still has his good days and his bad days."

One of his worst days came a week following his mother's death during an Intercollegiate Tennis Assn. Regional back-draw final.

"I flat-out tanked a match, and I had never done that," Rettenmaier said. "The score was like 0 and 1. I did not care. Billy [Martin] said, 'What happened?' and I said, 'I woke and I just did not care.' "

Things have gotten better, but there are still days when, "I just wake up and want to lay in bed all day and do nothing," he said.

But his sights remain high.

Rettenmaier says the circumstances of his mother's death at 44 have led him to a cleaner lifestyle. He said she died of liver failure stemming from alcoholism.

"I don't go out and party and I don't drink," he said. "For one, it tastes bad and it's not healthy for my tennis. And also because of my mother. When someone dies because their liver fails it has an effect on you because it's so close to you. It's devastating.

"I'm sure right now she's looking down thinking, 'Wow, I really messed up.' Well, I refuse to mess up."

His record for UCLA at the No. 5 or 6 spot is 14-1 in dual matches and 25-6 overall. Doubles is where Rettenmaier shines. He and Marcin Matkowski are 16-3 (22-4) this season, including a championship in the prestigious Pacific Coast tournament in La Jolla.

Martin, who prompted Rettenmaier to graduate high school early to attend UCLA, feels he can eventually mature into a seasoned player who could compete on the ATP Tour.

"His instincts in doubles are phenomenal," he said. "He has such quick hands. Some players mature later than others. Travis is very stubborn and wants it all now. I think he will be a great doubles player on tour, there's no doubt about that."

Rettenmaier plans to play in several junior tournaments this summer and is hoping for wild-card entries in Junior Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. He knows if he can win the National 18s Hardcourts in Kalamazoo, Mich., in August, he will receive a wild-card entry into the main draw of the U.S. Open.

"Travis has always been pushing the envelope," said Wayne Bryan, Rettenmaier's junior coach. "When he was 10 he wanted to play the 12s. And now here he is again pushing the envelope in college.

"I would have liked to have seen him stay and play one more year in the juniors, get some more gold balls [given to winners in national events]. I would have liked to have seen him wait so he could've dominated college tennis. I'm sure he's already thinking about turning pro.

"The Petes, Andres and [Andy] Roddicks can make the jump [to the pros], but most normal guys have to walk it up. I know he'd like to win a national title here before he leaves. But I never bet against Travis. He's what you call a winner."

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* More Ojai coverage on D2, D12

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