Laguna Beach Open : Smith and Stoklos Win Title Again : Volleyball Final Is Interrupted by Altercation With Fan

Times Staff Writer

Singin Smith has some high ambitions for the sport he has pretty much had his way with for the past few years. Beach volleyball's winningest active player and all-time leading money winner thinks big.

"There's no reason why volleyball can't become as big as tennis did," Smith said. Has Smith been out in the sun too long, or is it feasible that the considerable growth beach volleyball has experienced in the last 10 years will continue until it hits the big time?

Well, there were a few similarities between a major tennis tournament and the Laguna Beach Open, which concluded Sunday in front of 10,000 spectators at Laguna's Main Beach:

--One of the top-seeded players was forced to withdraw with an injury after a first-round loss. Tim Hovland, who teammed with Mike Dodd to win the world championship last season, injured his back while working out last week. He tried to play but was ineffective in a loss in Saturday's first round and dropped out.

--Players pleaded with spectators to be quiet as they prepared to serve.

--Players questioned line calls. One even had the head referee summoned to the court to settle an argument. John McEnroe couldn't have done it better.

--Smith and partner Randy Stoklos, two of the sport's most frequent winners, won.

But the parallels pretty much ended there. Let's start with etiquette, both player and spectator. The decorum at Laguna Beach would have the prim and proper at Wimbledon ready to toss their strawberries and cream.

Smith and Stoklos eased their way through the winners' bracket before beating Karch Kiraly and Ricci Luyties , 15-11, in a final that was interrupted when all four players and the referee ventured into the crowd to contain an unruly spectator.

McEnroe and Jimmy Connors have had their share of discussions with impolite spectators, but when was the last time they hopped into the stands in reckless pursuit of one?

Part of beach volleyball's appeal is the atmosphere its spectators help create. But after hours in the sun and the consumption of several drinks, a few of those spectators tend to throw etiquette into the ocean.

It happened with the final match tied at 9-9. Stoklos was preparing to serve when a fan near courtside said something that caught his ear. Stoklos walked over toward the fan and became engaged in an exchange of words. Referee and tournament director Matt Gage joined the conversation. Stoklos began to return to the court but continued to glare at the spectator.

Suddenly he turned around and jumped over a small barrier at courtside and into the crowd. Soon, all four players--and Gage--had left the court and joined Stoklos. Order was restored before anyone was hurt, and the fan was escorted away by Laguna Beach police officers. Stoklos later admitted that Gage told him he would be fined an undisclosed sum for his part in the incident.

Stoklos said he was merely trying to stop the fan from sneaking away before the police could arrive to remove him from the beach.

"When he heard the police were coming, he started sneaking away," Stoklos said. "I went after him and grabbed him by the pants. Normally, I wouldn't do that, but we had problems with that guy making gestures and remarks for two days. It was tied up at 9-9 in the finals of the tournament. I had the adrenaline going."

One spectator in the area said he thought Stoklos overreacted.

Said Kiraly: "I don't know if it's good for a player to go in there like Stokie did, but I'll be the first to back him up when he does. Whether he was right or wrong, a player's health was at stake.

"But I don't like to see that kind of thing happen. It's not good for the image of the sport."

After the incident, Smith and Stoklos went on to win their third straight Laguna Open championship and fifth tournament title in seven outings this season. The winners took home $5,000 in prize money.

Kiraly and Luyties, who will play in two more beach tournaments before rejoining the U.S. national team for the Goodwill Games, won $2,500. Brent Frohoff and Scott Ayakatubby , who claimed their first pro tour title last week in Santa Cruz, finished third.

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