La Quinta Tennis : Local Pro Makes Good . . . Stefanki Wins Title

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

Maybe a Jimmy Connors final would have meant a bigger crowd and maybe a victory by one of the Swedish wonder kids would have made more sense, but after picking through the rubble of seven days of upsets, this much must be said for the $375,000 Pilot Pen tennis tournament:

It produced one heck of a story.

In fact, the Larry Stefanki Story is almost too good, too sensational. This is the stuff of comic books, Steven Spielberg movies and prime-time TV drama. The plot line:

Journeyman tennis player, 27 years old and ranked 143rd in the world, is confronted by mid-career crisis. He’s a nice guy, he trains hard, but he keeps spinning his wheels on the pro circuit. After five years, he has exactly two tournament victories.


Then, he finds out that his hometown tennis club, where he serves as resident touring pro, is playing host to a tournament. He wants in, but his ranking is too low and the number of wild-card berths are limited. Tournament director is holding out, wanting to keep a couple spots open for the young Swedes, the hottest items in tennis at the moment.

The Swedes don’t return their phone calls, however, and three days before the opening round, the journeyman sneaks into the tournament.

And then he wins it!

“Unbelievable,” said Stefanki, who wrapped up the final episode Sunday with a 6-1, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 victory over David Pate. “I’ve never experienced anything like this. You dream about this.”


Perhaps, Stefanki is still dreaming. Maybe this morning, he’ll wake up, stretch out his legs and begin netting volleys and blasting serves into the bleachers. Maybe he’ll revert back to the form he displayed at his last tournament, at Delray Beach, Fla., when he could salvage only two games against Ivan Lendl.

But for one week at the La Quinta Hotel Tennis Club, Stefanki was a Midas with a graphite racket. He defeated three seeded players during the tournament’s early rounds--No. 7 Juan Aguilera, No. 12 Scott Davis and No. 14 Greg Holmes--and, in the final, when it counted the most, he could do virtually no wrong.

“I can’t believe it,” Stefanki kept saying after he had made off with the $51,000 first-prize check. “My groundstrokes were on all week. They’ve always been what let me down before. This is the first time in my life that for seven straight days, they didn’t break down.”

Stefanki thought about the money he had just won--nearly $19,000 more than his entire earnings for 1984. He couldn’t believe that, either.

“Even now, $51,000 is just some number to me,” Stefanki said. “It’s just out there. It doesn’t even feel like I have it.”

Stefanki made his money the old-fashioned way--he earned it.

He earned it by serving with uncanny precision and following up with an endless stream of winning volleys. He earned it by outhustling Pate all over the court. He earned it by drilling deep forehands that continually found white.

Pate, ranked 100 points higher than Stefanki in the computer standings and a pretty fair serve-and-volley specialist in his own right, found himself off-balance, out of position, overwhelmed.


“I don’t see how he could play any better,” Pate said. “I had no breaks at all. All my balls seemed to keep going out and all of his kept landing just in.”

Pate found out what kind of afternoon it was going to be early. He opened the match by breaking Stefanki’s serve, only to be broken three times himself. Stefanki won the set, 6-1.

Then, at the outset of the second set, Pate took a 1-0 lead--but not before watching Stefanki hit the baseline with three spectacular forehands, forcing deuce six times.

Whatever Pate got, he had to work overtime for.

Fatigue finally began to catch up with Stefanki in the third set, which Pate won, 6-3.

“I was exhausted,” Stefanki said. “I had just won two sets, 6-1 and 6-4, and I was dead-dog tired. I was saying to myself, ‘Why couldn’t it be two-out-of-three?’

“But I didn’t give up. Tomorrow, you can sit by the pool and talk all you want. You’re out there today and you can’t let all your friends down. Seeing all the people I knew in the stands gave me an energy boost.”

In the fourth set, Stefanki cashed in on his home-court advantage. Behind cheers of “Go-Go-Go,” the La Quinta club pro shut down Pate at 6-3 for the title, leaving the court to a standing ovation.


Pate also earned applause by announcing to the crowd that he was donating 10% of his $25,500 second prize to the Ethiopian relief fund. “My wife and I had talked about it since (Yannick) Noah did it in Memphis,” Pate said. “You hear about that stuff on the news, little kids starving, and you never think about it. We decided to do something this week.”

A crowd of 8,000 was on hand to deliver the ovations. That’s about 2,000 shy of capacity, which probably would have been reached had Connors or Henrik Sundstrom or Aaron Krickstein been on the court.

Instead, the tournament finished with Stefanki and Pate--and some empty seats.

But tournament director Charlie Pasarell did not have the post-match look of a disappointed man.

“Whatever empty seats we had would’ve been filled if it was a Stefanki-Connors final,” Pasarell said. “But I’m not sure the match would have been any better than this. If we could’ve written the script, we couldn’t have done it any better.”

In a way, Pasarell played a part. He finally granted Stefanki a wild card into the tournament after Swedish stars Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg declined invitations.

“I have a tremendous responsibility to this event and to the ticket buyers to bring in some big names,” Pasarell said. “We wanted Wilander and Edberg.

“But after today’s match, I walked over to Larry, shook his hand and said the worst mistake I could’ve made was getting Wilander and Edberg.”