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The Wallgard Saga: : How Pierce College’s Swedish Tennis Sensation Reached the JC Finals Via a Trip in Hong Kong

Times Staff Writer

Every college coach has his own favorite recruiting story.

One of the favorites at Pierce College involves tennis player Jonas Wallgard, who made his way half way around the world from his hometown of Hollviksnas, Sweden.

“It happened just by accident,” said Paul Xanthos, who has been the men’s tennis coach at Pierce since 1965.

That’s true, but there’s a lot more to the story than that.

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The tale begins, oddly enough, in Hong Kong, where five years ago a United Airlines pilot named Max Dosier was introduced by a friend to about half a dozen stewardesses from Lufthansa Airlines.

The next day, thinking he had spotted one of them--"I’d had a few beers the night before,” he said--Dosier approached a tall blonde woman on the Star Ferry, which links the city of Kowloon with the island of Hong Kong.

She told him that she was, indeed, a stewardess, but for Northwest Orient, not Lufthansa, and that she hadn’t met him the night before. Dosier apologized, but when he saw her later in the day, he offered to buy her a beer.

The two became fast friends. Three or four times, Dosier visited her in Sweden, where he was introduced to the youngest of her two brothers, a budding tennis star named Jonas Wallgard.

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Wallgard told Dosier of his desire to play for an American college like so many of his countrymen, including Mikael Pernfors of Hollviksnas, whom Wallgard had beaten as a junior five times in seven meetings. Last year, Pernfors won the NCAA Division I singles championship while playing for the University of Georgia.

Dosier, a tennis player himself who lived in Lake Tahoe at the time, told Wallgard that Southern California would probably provide the best competition. Later, when Dosier moved to Westlake Village, he invited Wallgard to come live with him.

Eager to test his game in America, Wallgard prepared a three-minute videocassette of himself playing and sent it off to Dosier, who showed it to Jack Darrah, head pro at the Westlake Tennis and Swim Club, and asked him where he should take it. Darrah recommended Xanthos.

Said Xanthos: “I was sitting in my office and this gentleman came in and said, ‘I’ve got a Swedish boy who I’d like to enroll in school here. Can you help me enroll him?’ He told me he was 6-foot-8 and a pretty good tennis player.”

That night, Xanthos watched the tape. “He introduces himself and starts hitting the ball. Pow! Pow! Really nice. . .” Xanthos said. “I said, ‘Boy, this is really great.’ He looked very impressive.”

Xanthos almost fell over himself getting Wallgard enrolled.

Xanthos’ teams have won 16 Metropolitan Conference championships in his 21 seasons, putting together separate conference winning streaks of 50 and 97 matches. Eight of his players have gone on to become collegiate All-Americans.

But the 64-year-old coach said he has never had a more talented player than Wallgard, who turns out to be 6-3--not 6-8--but in every other way has lived up to the promise he showed on videotape.

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Last week, the 21-year-old freshman won the singles title in the community college division of the prestigious Ojai Tournament, then won singles and doubles titles (with sophomore Leo Valencia) in the Metro Conference Tournament five days later.

His recent play earned him the No. 1 ranking in the Southern California regional championships, which began Thursday. Going into the third round today at the Racquet Club of Irvine, he has won 28 consecutive singles matches. His last loss was to Pat Crow of Long Beach on March 5, and he has since beaten Crow three times, most recently in straight sets, 6-3, 6-1, to win the Metro title.

“It’s getting easier and easier, actually,” Wallgard said.

His overall record is 30-2, including a 6-3, 4-6, 6-3 loss to UCLA’s David Livingston.

“I think I’ve improved,” Wallgard said. “Right now, it feels very easy. I just go out on the court and I win, almost. I’ve been playing good tennis.”

So good that he won’t be coming back to Pierce next year.

As an out-of-state resident, he has to pay tuition fees of $95 a unit. That sounds even more expensive to Wallgard when he considers the alternative: a full scholarship at a major college. So far, he has offers from Utah and Arkansas, and Xanthos said he has also heard from Arizona State, Rice, San Jose State and Georgia.

Pernfors also played one year at a junior college (in Florida) before transferring to Georgia.

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“It wouldn’t be fair to try to convince him to come back,” Xanthos said of Wallgard. Even if cost was not a factor, Xanthos said, “A player of his caliber should not stay more than one year. He’s ready for the big schools.”

The strength of Wallgard’s game, not surprisingly, are his ground strokes. He learned the game on clay courts outdoors and on an almost equally slow carpet-like surface indoors.

And, said Xanthos, “He’s a good athlete. He’s got a good background in soccer and basketball. His footwork and his speed are excellent. He’s got good reaction time. He’s got good hands and he’s big. . . .

“As soon as he gains confidence in the serve-and-volley game, I think he’s going to be awfully tough. I think what he needs now is to start working out with the big hitters--the type of hitters you find at UCLA and Pepperdine and Cal, where it’s all out, it’s a battle. It’s a war when they get on the court. When they play, it’s no fooling around. Pow! They hit as hard as they can. It’s serve and volley. It’s attack and attack and attack.”

Wallgard is looking forward to that. He said the competition on the JC level hasn’t been quite what he expected and that he won’t fully know how much he has improved until he returns to Sweden this summer.

“It’s different tennis out here,” he said. “I think that’s why most Swedish players do well out here. I almost haven’t heard of any (Swedes) who haven’t been playing good tennis out here (in the United States). Of course, the American doesn’t really know how to play the ground stroke game.”

Wallgard was introduced to the ground stroke 11 years ago by his parents. His family was active. His brother, Per, is a competitive windsurfer, and his sister, Pia, has run marathons.

Jonas was a good player, but not overwhelmingly so. He last beat Pernfors in 1981. By the time he was 18, he was the No. 4 junior in the Swedish county of Skane.

Five years ago, while visiting relatives in Minneapolis, he contacted the coach at the University of Minnesota, who watched him play but didn’t offer a scholarship.

Wallgard graduated from high school in 1983, then tried the professional tour for about six months. He met with little success, never advancing beyond the satellites into the main draw of any tournament.

“For more than one and a half years,” he said, “I didn’t beat one player who was better than myself, so I was really down. I really needed a break. That’s what maybe helped my game, actually. I was terrible for a while--losing and losing. It was really depressing.

“I played terrible at that time, so I quit and maybe didn’t play tennis for three or four months. I was only teaching to make money. I wasn’t practicing for myself. I think that was something I needed--a break from all of it.

“After that, when I started practicing again, I enjoyed it much more. Last summer, in Sweden, I played very good and beat lots of players who were ranked higher than me. And then, when I came over, it’s gone on and on.”

His only losses came six days before and nine days after his mother’s death from bone cancer on Feb. 24.

“For a while there, I was almost on my way home,” he said. “I was really depressed for a while. Then I started thinking about what she would want if she was alive. It’s my life now and I have to go on. I think I did the best to stay. That’s what my dad told me to do, too.”

Nobody has been as helpful as Dosier, who travels a lot and usually lives by himself.

“It’s really been nice to have someone around when I’m here for a few days,” Dosier said. “It’s really been interesting because he’s such a good player.”

Dosier watches Wallgard play whenever he gets a chance.

Telling the story of how they met the other day, he laughed.

“When you get right down to it,” he said, “the world’s really not such a big place.”

They believe him at Pierce.


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