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College stars are rookies on the pro tennis circuit

Daniel Kosakowski, formerly of UCLA, gets first pro win at Farmers Classic. USC's Steve Johnson loses, but he might return to Trojans.

July 26, 2011|By Matt Stevens
  • Daniel Kosakowski returns a shot during his victory over Tim Smyczek at the Farmers Classic on Tuesday.
Daniel Kosakowski returns a shot during his victory over Tim Smyczek at… (Jayne Kamin-Oncea / U.S.…)

Basketball players are not the only one-and-dones in college sports.

Though the risk is bigger and the pay is smaller in tennis, Tuesday's matches at the Farmers Classic showcased two local student-athletes who are — at least temporarily — shunning the NCAA to play on the pro circuit.

UCLA's Daniel Kosakowski confirmed Tuesday that he had left the Bruins after only one season, and USC's Steve Johnson said he'll be testing the professional waters during fall semester.

"We'll see how it goes," Johnson said after losing to Gilles Muller on Tuesday night. "Unless something incredible happens, I'll be back at 'SC in January looking to get another national title."

Johnson doesn't have much left to prove at the college level. He has helped lead USC to three consecutive national championships and won the NCAA individual championship last season. But Tuesday's match against Luxembourg's Muller stretched him past his limits. Muller managed to best the Trojan, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4, after Johnson dominated early.

Though he didn't win, Johnson said playing on the main court at UCLA was a great experience, and he said he saw the narrow loss to Muller as encouraging.

"I can hang with these guys," Johnson said. "[Muller] was a semifinalist last week in the ATP and I'm right there with him."

Kosakowski is moving on to the round of 16 after coming back from a set down to beat Tim Smyczek, 2-6, 6-1, 6-3, for his first win on the ATP tour. He was smiling big after the match as he signed balls and greeted his family, feeling rather good about his decision to go pro.

"I thought about [leaving college] the whole last year I was in school," Kosakowski said. It just came down to what I wanted to do with my life. … I feel like I'm just having more fun, enjoying it more, actually."

Kosakowski's decision leaves UCLA Coach Billy Martin without his No. 1 singles player next season. But Martin has been on the UCLA coaching staff for almost 30 years and he said it's not all that uncommon for a college tennis player to cut school short.

"It's not our favorite thing, but it's happened quite a bit," Martin said. "It's always kind of an underlying fear. The problem sometimes with getting the top recruits is they won't stay around all four years. You hope they'll stay for just a couple."

But if a player does choose to leave early, he's essentially on his own.

Unlike the NBA and NFL, there's no draft, no guaranteed contracts and no guaranteed money. Kosakowski will take home at least $10,800 now that he has won one match, but travel and hotels will add up, and Martin said there's only one way to keep the paychecks coming.

"With tennis you've just got to win," he said.

And though Kosakowski won Tuesday, he knows everything after his next match is uncertain. He and Johnson are taking slightly different approaches to their careers, but both have the same goal: They want to keep playing tennis for as long as they can.

"I definitely know how hard it is," Kosakowski said. "But I chose to do it because I love tennis, and however difficult it is, I want to do it."

matthew.stevens@latimes.com

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