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Refocused Jelso Aims for Return Trip to Buenos Aires : Racquetball: First experience was as Argentina’s coach in Pan Am Games qualifier. Now, after prolonged slump, he must play his way onto U.S team.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Racquetball is the kind of fast-paced, high-octane sport that sometimes seems a blur to its spectators.

There are the 180-m.p.h. serves that crack against the walls like bullets fired from a gun. Then there are the players, crashing into walls and each other while flailing at the speeding ball. Lose concentration for a split-second and that point, and perhaps the match, is lost.

Tony Jelso lost that focus not only for a second but for several months. The 6-foot-3, 200-pound player, who has been ranked as high as No. 8 by the American Amateur Racquetball Assn., suffered the worst slump of his career after winning a gold medal in singles play at the U.S. Olympic Festival last summer in San Antonio.

Only recently has he snapped out of it. He added another Olympic Festival gold medal this year, teaming with Sudsy Monchik in doubles last month in St. Louis. Jelso also placed second in the Outdoor Nationals on July 24.

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Jelso’s focus is as intense as ever as he approaches two major events. First is the Elmwood Pro-Am in New Orleans on Aug. 10, the first International Racquetball Tour event of the season. Then in October, Jelso will play in the National Doubles at Jacksonville, Fla. The winning team will represent the United States in the Pan American Games in Buenos Aires in March.

If Jelso, 24, qualifies for the U.S. team, it will be his second Pan Am Games experience. His gold-medal performance in singles at the 1993 Olympic Festival should have earned him a place on the U.S. national team for the Pan Am Games but, he said, he later was told by the AARA that the position had been promised to another player.

Meanwhile, the Argentine national team wanted a coach who was a top U.S. player. The AARA pointed Argentina to Jelso. He spoke little Spanish and the players little English, but somehow they forged a fourth-place finish at the Pan Am Games qualifier in Buenos Aires, Argentina’s highest in international racquetball competition.

“I hope I had something to do with it,” Jelso said of Argentina’s performance. “But I’ll give them credit--they did a great job.”

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The recent slump tested Jelso’s patience until his upswing last month. “It got to the point before the festival where I was really bummed out,” he said. “I wasn’t playing well and my stroke really wasn’t there yet. I took a month off to rest my mind because mentally I got drained sometimes from being on the court practicing every day.”

Jelso and his coach, Jim Carson, agreed last fall that he should take several months off to fine-tune his game. It was during that break that the slump began, after he adopted a more conventional grip at Carson’s urging. Never mind that Jelso was winning with a grip he had used since he was 10.

“He fought the decision the whole way,” said Wendy Bruce, his girlfriend. “He did it only because he and his coach decided together. He knew it wasn’t the right thing to do. His heart wasn’t in it at all.”

When he returned to competition at the end of the year, he was unsure and tentative, a far cry from the aggressive and intimidating presence that was Jelso’s calling card before.

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“I saw him in a tournament in Portland (Ore.), and he looked horrendous,” said Monchik, his doubles partner.

While he lost to players he was beating handily just months before, he didn’t know whether to hold his racket the new way or the old way.

As the slump dragged through the first half of this year, he took another break. No competition, no practice. He didn’t even touch a racquet. “I went through the burnout stage,” Jelso said. “I lost to a couple of people I should’ve beat. I was trying to figure out what it was. I was real lackadaisical on the court. It got to the point where it was just repetitive. . . . I didn’t have that fire burning like before.”

This time the break, coupled with a compromise grip, repaired his game, just in time for the Olympic Festival.

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Then came the Outdoor Nationals July 22-24. Jelso had not played outdoor racquetball, in which there is no back wall.

But despite the difference in the games, he advanced to the final before losing to friend Brian Hawkes, who has won the event the past six years and 13 times in the last 15.

“I don’t even know how I (made it to the final),” Jelso said. “I know the indoor game, but the outdoor game is a totally different experience. You can have some people who aren’t very good indoor players kill you outdoors.”

In the meantime, the pro tour awaits. And he is sure he will be the best before he is through playing.

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“Five years from now . . . I see myself in the top five, top two, maybe,” he said, his eyes staring at something seemingly just out of reach.


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