Los Angeles Tennis : Debbie Spence Finds Fame Is Costly

Times Staff Writer

Karen Stabiner gave Debbie Spence instant recognition on the women's tennis tour.

Debbie Spence says thanks a lot, but she'd rather get it on her own.

It started around the first of the year, when Spence, in Stabiner's widely talked-about expose on the junior girls' circuit, "Courting Fame," was labeled a bad loser with a tender ego, a pudgy junior star with the added weight on her shoulders of having to make it big and earn back the money on her parents' investment.

Lest anyone missed the opportunity to read the trials and tribulations of rising stars Shawn Foltz, Melissa Gurney and Spence as they worked through teen years on the tour, there were excerpts in another forum, the New York Times Magazine. There were stories of tantrums after matches, of the considerations of leaving school early to become a full-time pro, of overbearing parents and counting pennies on the road.

"She teetered in an awkward place, between adolescence and premature adulthood, uncertain of how to assert herself and defensive about being ignored," Stabiner wrote of Spence. "Since she was unsure of herself, she tended to be rigid in her demands and suspicious of every disagreement."

Courting fame? How about courting pain?

Spence defeated Maria Lindstrom in the first round of the U.S. Clay Court tournament at Indianapolis in April, came off the court and found 10 reporters waiting to talk to the leader of tennis' supposed version of the Brat Pack. She knew they weren't there to get her impressions on the opening-round victory.

Life at home in Cerritos also got a little out of whack. Her mother, Francine, got blamed for driving her, when actually, Debbie said, her father, Tom, is the take-control person on tennis decisions. As did most of the principals in "Courting Fame," the Spence family learned to live with the book. "See, Debbie," Tom said one day, "I'm not the one who pushes you. Karen Stabiner knows the truth."

Debbie Spence says she knows the truth, too, even though the book prompted her to do some soul searching.

"I felt terrible when it first came out," she said Monday at the Manhattan Country Club in Manhattan Beach where, two days after turning 19, she opened the Virginia Slims of Los Angeles tournament as the 63rd-ranked player in the world. "I was mad. I thought, 'It's not this way. There is something wrong with everyone. Why did she dig into my life? Why me?'

"I lot of relatives wanted to read it, but I said, 'Please, no. I'm not that rude, I'm not that bad, I'm not that mean. It makes me look like I'm the worst person in the tour, and that's not tennis-wise.'

"But then I stopped to realize that when you're sort of in public life, you're open to that type of thing. Chris (Evert Lloyd) and Martina (Navratilova) have to deal with it even more. I guess when you write a book, it has to be controversial or it won't sell. It made it interesting.

"People say, 'You must hate (Stabiner). You must be so mad.' But what can I do? I said I'd participate in the book."

The rest of 1986 hasn't exactly been flattering, either, but at least that's been because of what has happened on the court. After reaching the third round at Indianapolis, Spence found fame fleeting, losing her first match in four of her next five tournaments, among them Wimbledon and the French Open.

She came back to reach the quarterfinals of the Virginia Slims of San Diego to push her season winnings to $18,665. In the first round of the L.A. tournament Monday, she needed only 61 minutes to dispatch Carina Karlsson of Sweden, 6-2, 6-1. Even so, with family and friends in attendance, she wasn't as impressive as the numbers might indicate.

"Today, I was really nervous," she said. "I wanted to win this match really bad. I was a little afraid, maybe sort of tentative, wondering how I would do. . . . I wasn't hitting many hard shots in the beginning."

So she left it to Karlsson to make the mistakes. "And usually she did," Spence said.

That doesn't figure to happen with her opponent tonight: Navratilova.

No. 1 against No. 63? Courting fame can be so demanding.

Three seeded players were knocked out in Monday's first-round: No. 10 Catarina Lindqvist (6-3, 7-5, by Anne Minter), No. 13 Wendy Turnbull (6-3, 6-0, by Peanut Louie-Harper) and Anne White (6-2, 7-6, by Tina Mochizuki of South Pasadena). The highest seeded player to play, No. 9 Stephanie Rehe, defeated Helen Kelesi, 7-6, 4-6, 6-1.

In the night's final match, the 17-year-old Gurney, with the support of the hometown crowd, beat Andrea Holikova of Czechoslovakia, 6-0, 6-3.

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