She Loves Tennis : Cal State L.B. Women's Coach Knew Success as Player, but Coaching Called

Times Staff Writer

She played at Wimbledon, which fulfilled her goal but not her heart.

She was blessed with the ability to play tennis better than all but 129 women in the world, but she was destined to coach at her alma mater, squinting through a flimsy green backdrop, her nose against a rusty chain link fence.

Robin Kahn, her face the color of toast, watched her Cal State Long Beach women scuff over the hard courts and whip rackets to send yellow balls spinning over nets Friday afternoon in a match against Rice University.

When shots missed and turned breaths of exertion into distressed yelps, Kahn was there, where she has always wanted to be, giving soft words of advice and comfort.

Her top player, Havaja Frljuckic, a sophomore from Cudahy, stroked a two-handed backhand shot that just missed hitting the end line.

"No," her opponent shouted to signal the ball had landed out of bounds.

"Are you sure?" Frljuckic said, her voice strained by impending defeat.

Words of Encouragement

"Hang in there, get your rhythm," said Kahn.

Frljuckic lost, as did the 49ers, but the world didn't end. Kahn wouldn't let it.

"She'll never get upset when you lose a match, she never lets you feel bad," Frljuckic said of her coach. "She makes you feel that it's OK to lose; that it's not criminal."

If the 30-year-old Kahn didn't have that philosophy, she would have torn out her brown hair long ago. She entered the season with a five-year 55-87 record.

But finally she has a winner. "This is the best-balanced team I've had," she said.

The 49ers' record before the Rice match was 12-5. "If you would have asked me what the record was three years ago we'd probably be 5-12," she said.

But the 49ers lost three matches on a Northern California trip and saw their record fall to 12-9.

Lost to Elite Teams

Six of the losses were to teams considered among the elite of women's college tennis: Stanford, USC, UCLA, San Diego State, Arizona and Arizona State.

"At Long Beach we haven't been able to attract the top 10 players in the nation," Kahn said, "but we have attracted players who are just below that, who still have aspirations that they can be the best. We have a lot of heart, and we have grown together as a family."

After Frljuckic, ranked 10th among players 18 and under in Southern California, Kahn's top players are juniors Christine Bragg of Hawthorne, Jennifer Slattery of Huntington Beach and Antonia Wolff of Rolling Hills.

Kahn gave up softball when she was 14, adopted Billie Jean King as an idol, and started to play tennis.

She was the No. 1 player at Cypress College, then at Cal State Long Beach, where she was known for scrambling all over the court. "I just loved running down balls," she said.

After graduation in 1976 she joined the pro tour, but her first stops weren't Hilton Head, Boca Raton or other lush places.

Instead, she went to Tulsa, Oklahoma City and Sioux City, spending a sweltering summer on a minor-league circuit trying to gain playing time and exposure. Later in the year, she advanced to the Virginia Slims qualifying circuit and went to Europe the next spring.

"Tennis gave me a cultural education," Kahn said.

It also gave her lessons in the reality of being a player ranked 130th in the world with little chance of becoming a star. She knew her name would never roll off the lips of commentators Tony Trabert or Bud Collins.

'Everything You Wanted'

"You love it, because it's everything you wanted," Kahn said of the pro tour, "but your confidence level is up and down constantly and you're questioning, 'Why am I here?' and wondering, 'Where am I going?' "

She went to Wimbledon in 1977 and qualified to play in the sport's most prestigious tournament. She was where the stars were, but she never got to know them.

"They have three locker rooms there," Kahn said, "and when you're a rookie you're in the bottom locker room, segregated from the top players. There was a mysteriousness about them. I knew they were just regular people but I wasn't around them enough to find out what their personalities were like."

Kahn found herself in a doubles match against Betty Stove and Martina Navratilova and was impressed that they didn't treat her like a third-locker-room player.

"They played with respect," she said. "They didn't goof around and laugh and giggle."

Kahn's side lost, 6-1, 6-1, but just being there had been enough.

'My Whole Goal'

"That was my whole goal when I was 15 and my best friend bet me I'd never play Wimbledon," she said.

She had reached her goal after only a year as a pro but her ultimate dream was to coach at Long Beach, not collect $100,000 checks before packed crowds in glamorous settings.

"I thought I could go higher, but I felt it would take a couple more years," Kahn said. "I wasn't financially gifted to pursue another two years of just playing competitively, and I didn't think I was mentally tough enough."

Varsity tennis at Cal State Long Beach is played mostly in privacy. A small set of bleachers faces six courts bordered by fragrant bushes that students occasionally peek through on their way to class.

A match, which can last up to five hours, consists of six singles and three doubles contests, all two-out-of-three sets. The first team with five victories is the winner.

Developing team spirit can be difficult.

"It's an individual sport and they're used to just winning for themselves or losing for themselves," Kahn said. "But after they've had a few matches that are 5-4 they understand a little more what it means to be on a team and realize, 'Gee, they're relying on me and I'm relying on them.' "

A college coach does not spend her time showing players how to grip a racket or teaching them how to serve. As young teen-agers competing in tennis' tough junior ranks, their strokes are already polished.

Defines Her Role

"My role," said Kahn, the resident pro at Old Ranch Tennis Club in Seal Beach, "is to give them confidence and determination, a belief in themselves that they can produce some fine tennis."

She is their friend.

"You want to be hard-line as a coach, but you've got to recognize the emotional side of women," Kahn said.

Kahn's reward comes when a player hits a big shot under pressure or writes after graduation just to keep in touch.

But the player in her never wants to entirely let go.

"There are days when I'm stroking my forehand and backhand and I go, 'Gosh, I should be out there still.' It's 'Fantasy Island.' Then all of a sudden you hit the ball off the frame.

"You get melancholy when you think back, but I'm glad I'm here. I think there's a purpose in it. God said I was going to coach at Long Beach State. It's great to have that opportunity to live out your dream."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World