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Turned On by Tennis : Whittier Narrows Tournaments Have an Argentine Flavor and It All Began When a Valley Real Estate Salesman Flicked on the TV

Times Staff Writer

Ten years ago Horacio Tamborini, a valley real estate salesman, flicked on the television at home and something turned on within.

Guillermo Vilas of Argentina was the finalist in a tennis tournament on TV, and Tamborini, an Argentine expatriate, suddenly found the sport appealing.

“I never thought about it before I came here,” he said. “In Argentina tennis was just for the rich then; there weren’t any public courts.”

He got a racket and began going to courts near his house in Monterey Park. “But I practiced against the wall,” he said, “I was so bad I couldn’t get a partner.”

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He went so often, though--even in the rain--that his wife began to follow him. “She was convinced I was having an affair,” he said, laughing.

“Finally some members of the club there invited me to join. I attended clinics and played a lot, and a year later they made me vice president--because of my passion for the game, I guess.

“Then I began running tournaments, not only at Monterey Park but at Grandview Park and Keppel High School.”

About that time, at the other end of the Sun Belt, another former Argentine was getting restless. Mark Rolon had been a jockey in South America and later in Miami until several horses, including Rolon’s, fell in a race and he came up with a bad back.

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“I turned to tennis for exercise,” he said. “I always enjoyed the game, but I never took it seriously.” He began to play in tournaments and eventually thought about a change of scenery.

“I had some friends in California,” he said, “and I realized I could play more tennis there because there was less rain than in Florida.”

Rolon found work as a horse trainer at Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Del Mar and got into more and better tennis tournaments. At one he met Tamborini.

“It was about a year after I started running tournaments,” Tamborini recalled. “I could see that Mark was serious, and when he suggested I should concentrate on just one (tennis) site, it was an idea I was looking for.

“The county had just built 16 new courts at Whittier Narrows and a private company was running them. We reserved the courts for a Monterey Park tournament and began promoting it extensively. Even though we were asking a fee, we got 357 entries--a record for Monterey Park.”

But into each life a little rain must fall, even in Southern California.

“I had booked the courts six months in advance,” Tamborini said, “and never checked them out since. Three days before the tournament, we went to Whittier Narrows and found that the private company had left. There were weeds everywhere, and mud all over the courts.

“I called the county and they said there wasn’t much they could do in three days. So I contacted a friend in the construction industry and we cleaned it up ourselves, put in a couple of new nets, and the tournament went off great.”

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Soon Tamborini agreed to run a tournament for the Argentine Assn. of Los Angeles and used Whittier Narrows again.

“Then the county asked me if I would be interested in managing the courts for them. I said yes--not realizing this was going to be different from a hobby, where I was running a tournament once in a while and concentrating mostly on my real estate business.”

Tamborini sought help from Rolon, by this time ranked ninth in the 35-and-over category in Southern California, and tennis became an avocation for both, Rolon taking over teaching duties while continuing to train horses.

Tamborini’s career in real estate and his growing passion for tennis took a novel turn when he and his wife moved to Arcadia.

“We bought a house with a pool,” he said, “but the pool was sinking. As I made plans to rebuild it I got an idea. Why not do something different?”

“Something different” ended up being a pool shaped like a tennis racket, with a round Jacuzzi serving as the “ball.” Tamborini had a pool company do most of the work, but he put in the “strings"--rows of white tiles crisscrossing the black plaster bottom of the pool.

“It took me two weeks to recuperate from working on my knees so long,” he said.

He didn’t try to install the rest of the details himself, but they are uniquely Tamborini. A topiary, or sculptured hedge, spells “Tennis” near the back-yard pool, and in front of the house are two nearly life-sized custom metal sculptures depicting one player serving near the curb and one receiving near the door. The head of each is a globe that illuminates the walk between them at night. Environmental plates on his Mercedes spell Tenista, Spanish for tennis player.

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These ornaments of his life style and the time he spends “at court” led to his current reign as “America’s Biggest Tennis Nut,” an honor bestowed on him in an “international” competition held by Tennis magazine. (The finalists included a Canadian as well as aficionados from Texas, Kentucky and Florida.)

Tamborini was nominated for the honor by Keith Passow, an associate in the real estate business who began helping promote the tennis tournaments and is now hooked as a player.

Another link in the “Argentina connection” was about to be forged when Ricardo Pinelle completed a physical education major at the University of Cordoba and got the urge to visit American friends in Van Nuys. Nationally ranked as a junior in his homeland at age 17, he decided to check out tennis tournaments while here.

“Someone gave me the Whittier Narrows number,” he said, “but when I called, Horacio was busy and said he’d call me back. I didn’t think he’d bother--he didn’t know me--but he did.”

Pinelle stayed for a year and then returned to Argentina to teach. But with the growth of Whittier Narrows, Tamborini invited him back last year. “I told him I’m getting married,” Pinelle said, “there’d be two of us. He said ‘Come on,’ so I brought my new wife. We plan to stay in the United States for a while at least.”

Pinelle is working full time at Whittier Narrows, billed as the assistant manager and head teaching pro. With his compatriots he’s also billed informally as local tennisdom’s Trio Los Panchos, loosely translated as the Three Musketeers.

Together they operate a no-frills facility with a mailing list of nearly 4,000 names, including players of all income levels and abilities.

“For the first three years we operated out of a 5-by-5-foot booth,” Tamborini said. “I put up the money to double it but it’s still packed with rackets, clothing, supplies--you name it.”

Recently Tamborini proposed an agreement with the county in which he will get a 10-year lease on the facility in exchange for building a 1,600-square-foot clubhouse and pro shop.

“I’ll pay 70%,” he said. “The county is supplying the slab, utilities, etc. We plan to install showers and other amenities. I expect to invest $80,000 to $200,000, and I’ll sell memberships. It’ll be open to the public, of course, but members will have guaranteed, unlimited use of the courts. At $360 a year, I’ve already sold 30 memberships. Nonmembers will pay by the day. Whittier Narrows and Lakewood are the only county facilities where the public pays now, but that’ll be the trend.”

Tamborini said his program is the biggest in the area, except for the once-a-year Glendora Tournament. “We have round-robin events going every night,” he said, “and nine big tournaments are scheduled next year, four of them sanctioned by the U.S. Tennis Assn.”

Back in the days when he was more of a player than a promoter, Tamborini captained a team in a league run by Angus McRonald, an aerospace engineer and 20-year member of Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s tennis club who is manager of the Foothill Tennis League, coordinator of the USTA/Volvo League and commissioner of the San Gabriel Valley Grand Prix.

“When I first took over Whittier Narrows,” Tamborini said, “I had little experience. I couldn’t just sit there; people weren’t coming to the place. I called on my friends, relatives and neighbors, then let everybody in Monterey Park know about it--Angus got the word out to the league.

“Finally I told Angus I’d like to start a serious tournament series, and he told me about a grand prix in Orange County. We started our own, without a sponsor, and a year later the Orange County promoter brought Ford Thunderbird to us. The San Gabriel Valley Grand Prix grew like an octopus; at first it drew 180 to 200 entries, now it’s up to around 400.

“Two years ago Chrysler LeBaron took over--their sponsorship included series from Santa Barbara to San Diego, with a Masters playoff between various areas. Now we’re looking for a new sponsor.”


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