Rekindling the Flame : Tom Leonard’s Competitive Fire Burns as Ex-Pro Readies for Sectional Semifinals

Times Staff Writer

Tom Leonard spent last Thursday afternoon with garden hose in hand, spraying down a small brush fire next to the Glendale condominium complex where he lives. He extinguished the blaze and soaked the surrounding area before alerting the fire department.

In the 1970’s, Leonard was nicknamed “The Fireman,” but the moniker had nothing to do with a knack for drenching flames. It was in reference to the difficulty he had dousing his fiery disposition and hot temper on the tennis court.

It might also have had something to do with the fact that most who faced Leonard were, methodically and predictably, burned.

Leonard, 41, will attempt to torch yet another opponent Friday in the semifinals of the 55th Southern California Sectional Championships--the largest senior tennis event in the country--at the Racquet Centre of Universal City.

Leonard, a tennis instructor at the Racquet Centre in South Pasadena, now goes by “Leo,” an abbreviation of his last name. And he made short work of his first two opponents last weekend, losing just three games.

His performance came as no surprise considering that, in his heyday as a pro, he was ranked as high as 36th in the world and defeated players such as Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, Arthur Ashe and John Newcombe.

Pay on the pro circuit was meager then--even for the winners--and the globe-trotting was grueling.

“I got tired of the traveling, I never got tired of the competition,” Leonard said. “Traveling was a killer. Just flying from here to England, I couldn’t sleep well for two weeks and by then, two tournaments were over.”

An ankle injury in 1979 forced Leonard’s retirement from the pro tour. The traveling did not abate, however. Barely over his jet lag, he bought a Camaro, doctored the engine and finished 16th out of 40 participants in the Cannonball One Lap of America, a car race that begins in Connecticut and ends in Redondo Beach.

For those who know Leonard, the brief interlude with car racing was not unusual. In addition to tennis, he has mastered scuba diving, karate, skeet shooting and skiing.

Leonard returned to tennis in the early 1980’s and worked as a pro at the Pala Mesa Golf and Tennis Resort in Fallbrook, Calif., a club once owned by his family. About three years ago, he began working at his current club.

Though he spends long hours on the court giving lessons, he has little time to practice.

“Teaching tennis has nothing to do with playing,” he said. “It’s the worst thing for your tennis.”

Maybe that’s what Walt Ayrault thought would give him the edge in his first-round match last weekend. He was well aware of Leonard’s accomplishments. Still, after watching him play, Ayrault felt he was beatable.

A 6-0, 6-0 thumping by Leonard quickly altered that estimation.

“I was thinking, ‘Geez, he’s not that good,’ ” Ayrault said. “But as I was playing him I was thinking, ‘Then how come he’s acing me?’ He’s very efficient. He made three, maybe four mistakes the whole match. The fact that he didn’t make errors was putting the pressure on me.

“He aced me plenty of times but it was a two-way street because I wasn’t willing to give up my game. I like to take a big swing. I don’t like to patty-cake the ball and I just couldn’t read where he was going to put it.”

However, reading Leonard when he’s angry is more difficult than handling his topspin lob or returning his unpredictable serve. Though he is jovial and unassuming away from tennis, his blood simmers with competition. Sometimes, he boils over.

During a 1974 World Championship Tennis doubles match in Tokyo against Borg and Ove Bengston, Leonard exploded.

“I was losing my serve so I said, ‘Leo, you’ve got to start poaching,’ ” said partner Tom Edlefson, who describes poaching as moving around the net. “He got mad and when he gets mad, he gets silent.”

Leonard didn’t speak for about 15 minutes and Edlefson finally delivered an ultimatum: If Leonard refused to poach, Edlefson would quit. At which point, Leonard slammed a glass Coke bottle on the court.

“I didn’t want to say anything more,” Edlefson said. “I thought he might kill me.”

Leonard did not raise a hand. However, the two were about as talkative as Trappist monks until midway through the flight home. “It’s the middle of the night, right over the Pacific and I say, ‘We’ve got to talk,’ ” Edlefson said.

Leonard, unaware of any tension, replied, “What’s wrong?”

Leonard and Edlefson became friends while both were playing on the USC tennis team. In 1973-74, the two formed a doubles partnership on the WCT tour. They have remained friends and partners since.

Once, after a particularly frustrating game at the L. A. Tennis Club, Leonard shattered a wooden water cooler with his racket. Then, though his 5-foot-10 frame is not heavily muscled, he slammed the front door of the club so hard it was, according to witnesses, left hanging by a hinge. “And that front door could go on the front of Fort Knox,” Edlefson said.

To cool off, Leonard drove to New York. Said Edlefson: “Nobody knew where he was for four days.”

Leonard’s friends have grown to expect his free-spirited impulsiveness.

“He got a bee in his bonnet one time and came over and put a garage door in my house,” Edlefson said, laughing. “Another time, he made me go out and buy all this archery stuff. He said ‘You’ve got to do it.’ And we’ve been out about three times in the last five years.”

No sport has dispelled Leonard’s passion for tennis--a fact that baffles even him.

“I kind of never thought I’d get to the 35’s when I was younger,” he said. “I said, ‘I’ll never be playing when I’m that old.’ ”

For Leonard, it’s been a slow burn.