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Something to Calculate: Pro Tennis or College?

A brisk, tingling fog barreled over the hill that doubles as her back yard in Rolling Hills, suddenly chilling a balmy late-summer afternoon, but two-time U.S. Open junior doubles champion Kimberly Po didn’t seem to notice.

Thirty minutes earlier Po’s head was lost in a calculus assignment for one of three advanced placement classes she takes at Miraleste High School. By hour’s end, she would be calculating again.

Even during one of her rare respites from tennis--she was taking the week off after the U.S. Open--Po was keeping up in school and talking more seriously than most 16-year-olds.

“I’m ready to go to college but I’m not sure if I’m on my way to the pros,” she said with a humble grin. “I’ll probably try it because it seems like a waste if I didn’t, but I don’t know if I can make a living out of it.”

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One look at the sparkling pool and sweeping view that grace her back yard and you think a talented, studious teen-ager like Po has it all. But she may have too much to succeed in pro tennis, according to her coach, Robert Lansdorp.

Lansdorp, Tracy Austin’s former coach who has tutored an endless string of South Bay standouts, works with Po three times a week. He believes the senior could be a top-30 player on the pro circuit in a few years, but not if she accepts a scholarship to play Division I tennis, which is likely.

“Her problem is that she has too many options,” Lansdorp said. “She is intelligent, involved with lots of things in school and likes to have a busy social life, but all these things make it tough to be completely dedicated to becoming a pro.

“If she wants to be a success at pro tennis, she has to take it as a job, drop some of the other things. That is what’s holding her back right now, and college is just going to get in the way.”

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Lansdorp thinks young people who go to college with the idea of turning pro later are cheating themselves. Of Po, he said: “She will never make it as high as she would if she (turned pro) now.”

But if Po turned pro, she would no longer be eligible for college tennis. So to maintain her eligibility, Lansdorp said, Po should play pro tournaments for an extended period without accepting prize money.

Po already has played a few pro tournaments without pro status. But she said she is determined to at least start school next September at UCLA or UC Berkeley. John Po, Kim’s father, said Kim probably will play pro tournaments as an amateur next summer before beginning school.

“She’ll do this so she can get experience against pro players that she otherwise would not get,” he said, “and also, if she plays enough, she can get a national ranking.”

Education, he said, has always been the family’s primary goal. So when the Pos took up tennis six years ago, they expected only to improve their health and to have fun. “It was really just something that the family could do together,” he said.

But coaches quickly noticed Kim’s talent. “We just didn’t realize it or didn’t realize what they were saying,” her father recalled. “We really just started talking about trying pro tennis last year.”

It was about time. Not too long after she picked up a racket, Kim was among the nation’s top 50 in the 12-year-old division and soon ranked No. 8. Last year she was No. 1 in Southern California 16s and No. 3 nationally. Add those ratings to her doubles standards--No. 1 in the country in 16s and 18s--and you’d think peninsula folk would know about her.

“But what usually happens,” Po said, “is that I’ll tell them I’m ranked and they’ll say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you were that good.’ ”

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Or she will have finished just below the top three in a national tournament, relate the good news back home and receive sighs that silently say: “You didn’t win? What’s wrong with you?”

Both reactions are common on the hill. Either you know nothing of tennis, or it’s a passion. And with three of the Southland’s best prep tennis programs in the area, it’s not easy to live up to expectations as a team member--even if you’re Kim Po.

Po wins most of the time. So does Miraleste. Cal-Hi Sports named Miraleste State Team of the Year in 1986 and 1987 after the Marauders collected CIF-Southern Section 4-A championships in both seasons. And this year Miraleste, which carried a No. 1 ranking into Wednesday’s league match against No. 3 Palos Verdes, is unbeaten.

But Po bristles when it’s suggested that competing for Miraleste is child’s play compared to the U.S. Open. “I have a lot of pressure playing at Miraleste, too,” she said, “because if I lose, some people in my school don’t understand that. And if they come to watch and you mess up, you feel like, ‘Oh, how could I do this in front of them.’ ”

Po and partner Meredith McGrath tried their hands at the U.S. Open main draw last month and lost a three-setter in the first round, but they corralled their second straight Open championship with a straight-set victory in the juniors bracket.

The likes of Steffi Graf and Chris Evert nearby mesmerized Po two years ago in Flushing Meadow, site of the Open. “I wasn’t ready for any of it. Everything was, ‘Oh my gosh!’ I had seen the pros play but never walked around with them or been in the locker rooms with them.”

But this year, Po and McGrath relaxed and rolled. “And I don’t see why we can’t do it again,” McGrath, 17, said.

Both hit crisp, penetrating volleys usually preceded by consistent serves. Like McGrath, Po is a superior doubles player who needs work on her singles game. Possibly because her life is so busy, Lansdorp said, she prefers the fast pace of a serve-and-volley doubles match.

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“In singles, you have more decisions to make and she doesn’t like that,” Lansdorp said.

Po put it this way: “The game goes quicker if you rush the net. You can lose quicker and you can win quicker, but it is not as much work as playing on the base line.”

By no means is Po a lackadaisical player. No coach would suggest a pro career if she was. Still, she tends to lose her concentration easily. Cal women’s Coach Jan Brogan has known Po for several years and said: “The challenge with her is to keep her interested because she gets bored quickly. Off the court she is distracted and on the court she can play the same way.”

Brogan, a former pro who is in her 11th year at Cal, sees college as the best place for Po. “Kim is a very special girl and she can handle a lot of things at once, and that is why the college environment might be perfect for her,” Brogan said.

The danger of turning pro, Brogan added, is that a young player would get “picked apart” on the court by more experienced players and would be forced to bypass the new friendships and social life of college.

Talk of Po turning pro, however, seems academic when Po’s dedication to academics is considered. Last year, with three honors classes, she had trouble keeping up in school and playing tennis every day. So this year she considered reducing her workload. Then she reconsidered.

“Last year I had a really hard time keeping my eyes open in class, and I didn’t know if I wanted to deal with that this year,” she said, “but I am, probably more so.”

She enrolled in four advanced placement courses when friends took just one. “I was like, ‘You guys aren’t gonna try it?’ ” she said. “I was surprised . . . . I just feel that if I’m taking easier classes, then I am not pushing myself. It’s just the way I’ve been brought up that I feel almost guilty if I take something too easy.”

She subsequently dropped her honors physics class, but the easier load did not ease her time constraints. How busy is she? After the U.S. Open, she took a week off and took time out to see a movie. It was the first time she could remember going out on a school night. And during the summer she doesn’t take vacation because of tennis.

“That does bother me,” she said, “but that is how it’s been for many years.”

And probably will be for a few more.


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