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It’s All Relative at the La Jolla Tennis Championships : Togetherness Not Easy in Father-Son Doubles

Fathers and sons who play doubles tennis together are caught in an inevitable cycle.

As the father’s game peaks, the son searches to find his. The father thus attempts to dominate play and steer balls away from his son.

As the years go by, the father’s game slides, and he struggles to maintain a respectable level of play. Meanwhile, the son, now in his prime, attempts to cover as much court as possible and mask his father’s weaknesses.

They are like two singers never in perfect harmony. The gap in generations and ability level can sometimes be so wide that family ties are strained.

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“It always happens; the father tells the son how to play, and later the son tells the father how to play,” said La Jolla’s Oscar Harper, 63. Harper and his son Jim, 31, havereached this weekend’s quarterfinals of the father-son division at the 73rd La Jolla Tennis Tournament. “Some teams never get their differences worked out, and they quit.”

That almost happened to Harper and his son years ago.

“Jim stomped off the court in Houston,” Oscar said, “I said, ‘If you ever do that again, I won’t play again.’ ”

Said Jim Settles, who also has reached the quarterfinals with his dad, Jim Sr.: “Some teams have a touchy relationship. The bond creates extra tension.”

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But even teams with differences say the feeling they experience during competition is unique.

“The camaraderie you feel with your dad is a feeling I’ve never had before,” said Jim Settles, who played at Arizona State, then on the pro satellite circuit for two years. “It’s a great high.”

La Jolla’s Bob Hagy, 75, won the national father-son tournament twice in the ‘60s with his son, Chico. “Winning it was as exciting a thing as I’ve ever done,” he said.

Why such a thrill about a friendly game of tennis with a son and his dad?

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Most fathers and sons say it comes out of the intense pressure each player puts on himself to succeed.

“It’s probably one of the more pressure-packed things there is,” said Jim Harper, a tennis pro at the Tustin Hills Racquet Club. “You’re always out to prove to your dad that you’re a good player.”

Said Jim Settles Sr., who lives in Laguna Niguel: “In tennis, I don’t think there is any more pressure. When you don’t play well, you feel like you’re letting your son down.”

Hagy said he lets his son down quite a bit these days.

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“These days, I can’t even break an egg,” he said. “I’m just out there, and everybody hits everything at me. I’m like a punching bag.”

But using the weaker player as a punching bag is a way of life in the world of father-son doubles. It is the norm, and it makes pre-match strategy simple.

“You always figure out who you’re going to get or attack,” Jim Settles Sr. said. “If you’re playing a team you don’t know anything about, you will test the father. If it doesn’t work, you adapt your strategy during the match.”

Does the son ever take assaults on his father personally?

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“They’re trying to make my dad play,” Jim Harper said. “You might hit a couple balls a little extra hard if they continue to go after him.”

John Steele Jr. and his father, John Sr., are the defending La Jolla father-son doubles champions and also have reached the quarterfinals. John Jr. said he is relentless in attacking the weak link, which is commonly poor old dad.

“If we’re playing a team with one guy who is substantially better than the other, the better guy will never see the ball.”

If he does, it’s only because he’s running down everything in sight, which many of the younger players are forced to do whether they like to or not.

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So like the aging basketball or baseball player who becomes a role or utility player in his final years, the father almost becomes a third-wheel.

“After 55, the man goes down pretty quickly,” Oscar Harper said. “The fathers understand that the kids have to dominate sometimes. It’s just part of the game.”

Said Jim Harper: “There will be times when I know he’s getting tired, and I’ll try and overcompensate. As the son, you have to play a little more aggressively. You have to poach (go into your partner’s territory) more and move around more. You almost have to take over the match.”

But, Harper said, matches are rarely won with a one-man show.

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"(The father) still has got to return his serve and get his first serve in,” he said.

John Steele Sr. said neither player can afford to have an off match.

“If I have a bad day, there’s no way we can win,” Steele said. “If he has a bad day, we’re probably not going to win.”

The key therefore seems to be having a son who is at or near his prime and a father who can keep his mistakes to a minimum.

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One of the top father-son doubles teams of all time had even better balance. Dick Leach, the head tennis coach at USC, and his son, Rick, were both near close to their primes in the mid-'80s. Rick was a top-ranked junior, and Dick was No. 1 nationally in the 45s.

The Steeles, who began to improve as the father reached 50, seem an anomaly among father-son teams. At 57, John Sr. has raised his game a notch, while John Jr. has stayed fairly consistent.

“It’s really odd,” said John Jr., who played at Dartmouth. “He’s become better at playing father-son doubles. My father’s got some weaknesses, but most teams don’t exploit them.”

Cut-throat and high-intensity tennis aside, most fathers and sons say the real joy is being with each other, off and on the court. Many teams travel a father-son circuit, which includes four national tournaments a year and many other local ones, including La Jolla.

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“The important thing is being with my dad,” Jim Harper said. “It drives us together in an atmosphere that is real healthy and fun.”

Oscar Harper added: “It’s a time when the father and the son can get together and talk about life. It makes them a lot closer.”

Jim Settles Sr. can proably relate to that closeness more than anyone. He began playing the La Jolla tournament 50 years ago with his dad. He addition to Jim, he has also teamed with his younger son, Paul.

“Traveling together, being together in a competitive situation, experiencing the wins and the losses is like nothing else.”

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