Local players question pro aspirations U.S. tennis officials are newly promoting Despite $31 million plan, stars see tough challenge of making a college team

October 02, 1997|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,SUN STAFF

Shomik Das got his first taste of tennis five years ago, when he borrowed a friend's tennis racket and smacked a ball on newly-built courts next to his family's home in India.

"No one in the neighborhood played tennis -- except for maybe the old people," recalled Das, a senior at Atholton High School who immigrated to the United States in 1994 and is projected to be the team's No. 1 starter this spring.

That scenario would be a full-blown nightmare for the United States Tennis Association, which recently announced a $31 million initiative over the next five years to encourage and develop young Americans to play tennis and eventually turn professional.

But the effort is not filtering down to some of Howard County's best players, many of whom are resigned to the realization that they may not even play competitively in college.

"I want to get a tennis scholarship and play for a college," said Lauryn Taubman, a senior at Wilde Lake who is also projected to be the team's No. 1 starter. "But that's pretty hard."

Even more realistic is Katie Long, a sophomore at Mount Hebron who is expected to be ranked among the top 25 players in the girls' 16-and-under division of the USTA's Mid-Atlantic Region.

"For me, it's more about making the high school team," Long said. "Since the pros are my age now, I don't think I could go pro."

Those sentiments are troubling for USTA officials who are determined to promote outreach programs to America's next Pete Sampras and Monica Seles.

"Every kid who picks up a racket wants to win the U.S. Open," said Randy Walker, a USTA spokesman. "If they don't stop dreaming and believing in themselves, kids can do whatever they want."

The effort behind the national push is understandable. When Boris Becker won his first of three Wimbledon titles in 1985, young Germans stood 20-deep on tennis courts -- gripping Puma rackets and diving for volleys on hard courts.

When Brazilian Gustavo Kuerten won this year's French Open, tennis participation in his native country sky-rocketed an estimated 40 percent.

And tennis in America is sorely lagging behind sports such as baseball, basketball and football.

That's why the USTA is riding the coattails of players such as Venus Williams, the 17-year-old Californian who produced one of the U.S.'s Open's more storied runs last month.

Although Williams lost in the finals to No. 1-ranked Martina Hingis of Switzerland, Williams's success can be used to encourage other young players, Walker said.

"Venus was a known entity only in the tennis world," he said. "When she reached the finals of the U.S. Open, she crossed the threshold. Now is the time when her impact can be felt on the junior players."

To capitalize on the surge, USTA officials are revitalizing the National Junior Tennis League the late Arthur Ashe founded in 1969. They also donated 1,000 tickets to Washington young people when the American team met the Australian team in the Davis Cup contest last month.

While no one questions the effort, many players and coaches say the goals are too lofty and misguided.

For example, the USTA is targeting inner-city young people. But Greg Dubac, tennis coach at Atholton, points out the high cost of tennis lessons, equipment, and academies.

Tennis is "very elitist," he said, "and they're not going to create the next generation of tennis players through a parks program," Dubac said. "It's a skills sport that takes thousands of dollars."

Jean Shepard, Glenelg tennis coach, said she thinks American kids have other obligations -- such as school, SATs, social lives -- to worry about.

"What I see are a lot of tennis players who are soccer players or who have other things in their lives," Shepard said. "If you want to go pro, you have to be focused and play hard all of the time."

Some players still believe that they can turn pro. Katie Dougherty of Centennial and Justin Benoliel of Glenelg said they plan to play in college with an eye on turning pro after graduation.

"After that, I'll play some satellites and see how it goes from there," said Dougherty, who went undefeated last season and is currently ranked fifth in the girls' 18-and-under division of the Mid-Atlantic region.

Added Benoliel: "I haven't given up. I want to get through high school and see if I do well in college. If I do, I'll decide then what I'm going to do next."

Pub Date: 10/02/97

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