A Tennis Susie-Come-Lately Eagerly Eyes the Over-40 Crowd : Tennis: It was love at first serve for Susie Patterson when she finally picked up a racket. Now she has to overcome her peers' superior experience with her own athleticism.

When Susie Patterson began playing competitive tennis two years ago, she felt a little like a talented but raw basketball team still searching for some chemistry.

You see, while she was skiing and playing volleyball during her formative years, most of Patterson's competitors were honing their tennis skills for four and five hours a day.

Though she took her lumps playing against people who at times owned a 20-year edge in experience, Patterson kept the faith.

Back then, her motto might have been--"Get me now, while you still can, because you might not be able to later."

Later has not arrived just yet for Patterson, 40, but she feels it is just around the corner.

Beginning Tuesday at the Women's over-40 National Hardcourt Tournament at the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club, Patterson's maturing process continues.

She is unseeded in the 64-woman field, but no longer does she automatically draw the tournament's top-seeded players in the first round.

"When I first started playing the national tournaments I'd always get the No. 1 seed, and I never had any confidence," she said. "I'd always wind up getting creamed."

Patterson, of Rancho Sante Fe, is still not beating the top players, but she is able to stay on the court with them. This summer in Chicago, she reached the consolation finals in doubles and finished eighth in singles.

"Every month I'm getting better," said Patterson, who is the third-ranked singles player in San Diego. "People I could never get a set off of, I'm beating now."

The difference?

Patterson said it's a matter of confidence and experience.

"I'm a lot more relaxed now," she said. "I used to get so nervous, I felt like I was going to throw up."

But people who have seen her play, such as her friend Marikaye Daniels, say Patterson's new-found success can be attributed to her athleticism.

"Usually it's not enough to be a great athlete on the tennis court, but Susie seems to make it work for her," said Daniels, a former pro player who was once ranked 20th in the United States.

Patterson said her strategy is to play an attacking serve-and-volley game and attempt to take her opponents to three sets.

"I run every day, and I don't think there are too many people out there who are in better shape than me," she said. "I don't have the patience or the experience to stand on the baseline and hit groundstrokes with a lot of these players."

Patterson began playing tennis recreationally 10 years ago, about the time she gave up volleyball--her first love.

After playing volleyball in high school, Patterson played at UCLA in the early 70s. Her second husband, Danny Patterson, competed for the 1968 and 1972 U.S. Olympic team.

But as much as she enjoyed spiking a volleyball over a net, Patterson was hooked when she realized an overhead smash could be just as invigorating.

"Tennis just got in my blood right away," she said.

And Patterson said her volleyball fundamentals are not completely lost on the tennis court.

"The overhead serve in volleyball is very similar to the tennis serve," she said. "The hand-eye coordination you learn in volleyball also comes into play on the tennis court."

A possible Patterson opponent this week, Carol Holder, was her first tennis partner.

"Carol dragged me along to a tournament, and that's when I became hooked," she said.

Patterson would love to see her passion start turning into national titles, but she said she'll never lose her perspective on why she's playing.

"I don't take myself too seriously," she said. "A loss doesn't wreck my day. I might take it to heart, but I don't take it too seriously."

Daniels, who reached the Wimbledon quarterfinals in mixed doubles in 1974, and her partner, Liane Bryson, are seeded fourth in the women's over-40 doubles, which begins Tuesday. In the early 1980s, Daniels and Bryson were ranked third nationally in the 35s.

The top-seeded doubles team is Barbara Mueller, from Tempe, Ariz., and Ellen Bryant, from Corona del Mar. Suella Bowden and Jane Willens, of Encinitas, are seeded third.

In singles, Mueller is seeded first, Stephanie Adcock of Los Gatos second and Judie Louie of Corona del Mar third. Rancho Santa Fe's Cathie Anderson is seeded fifth and Bowden sixth.

Phil and Brett Dent are seeded No. 1 in the national father-son tournament, which begins Friday. Dick Leach, the men's tennis coach at USC, and his son Jonathon are seeded second. San Diego's William and Bill Tontz are seeded fifth.

All finals will be played Sunday.

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