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TENNIS / DANA HADDAD : Illness, Tu Thwarted Bleszynski

She was advised by her doctor not to go to San Jose, but severe bronchitis would not stop Ania Bleszynski from playing in last week’s United States Tennis Assn. Girls’ 18 national championships.

Her illness likely played a role in her straight-set loss to rival Meilen Tu in what many expected to be a hotly contested showdown between great young players from the Valley. Bleszynski of Thousand Oaks was seeded fourth. Tu of Northridge was top-seeded.

Bleszynski battled rustiness, fatigue and sluggishness--the remnants of a severe cold--but reached the semifinals. There, Bleszynski was blown out by Tu, 6-1, 6-2. Tu won the tournament the next day.

“I don’t like to make excuses,” Bleszynski said.

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So she doesn’t attribute the blowout to a physician telling her two weeks before the national tournament that she had symptoms of pneumonia.

She couldn’t play tennis for 10 days and was advised by her doctor not to make the trip. She made it anyway, packing antibiotics.

"(Tu) basically blew me off the court,” Bleszynski said. “She was stepping in and ripping winners off my first serve. I was definitely not happy (about the loss). But Meilen played really well. It might not have made a difference even if I was feeling great.”

Tu consistently hit winners with pinpoint accuracy--often hitting the lines with her ground strokes.

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Tu was pegged to win the match. But few who follow junior tennis figured Tu, a slender 16-year-old who stands 5-foot-5, would so dominate the 6-1, 17-year-old Bleszynski. Tu surprised Bleszynski with her power.

“She used to hit a lot of moon balls,” Bleszynski said. “But she’s gotten much stronger. She’s always been quick and able to chase down balls. But she can take control, too, and wipe (opponents) off the court.”

Tu is a rising player on the international junior circuit, winning tournaments in South America and England this year. But Bleszynski had been winning big in the United States. She won the Southern California sectional tournament in June, routing Violette Ahn, 6-3, 6-2, in the final. In July, Bleszynski earned two gold medals at the U.S. Olympic Festival.

Bleszynski said she expected to win the national championship at that point.

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But the bronchitis wiped away that optimism. She had to play her way back into shape during the tournament.

“When I played Meilen, I wasn’t tired,” Bleszynski said. “But I didn’t have much confidence going in. I wasn’t playing well. Mentally, I was just not pumped up enough.”

Add rivals: Bleszynski and Tu occasionally play practice sets at the Warner Center Club. Tu wins most of those battles as well. Bleszynski said Tu could bypass college and go directly to the pro tour.

“Eventually--because her whole day is for tennis--something has to come out of that,” Bleszynski said.

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Add Tu: A former Granada Hills High student who now studies at home, Tu had twice before been seeded at the national 18s tournament but never advanced past the quarterfinals, in part because of injuries.

Tu downplayed her desire to win the 1994 championship until it was over.

“I wanted the title,” Tu said after she defeated Lilia Osterloh, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, for the championship. “This is a pretty big win for me.”

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But as she advanced through six rounds to the final, beating each opponent in straight sets, Tu never let on about how badly she wanted to win the title.

“The most important thing is that I’m improving,” she said. “I’m just happy if I play well.”

Finally, Tu said, she received some prodding from Helen Tu, her older sister.

"(Helen) said, ‘I know how badly you want it, even though you don’t admit it,’ ” Meilen said. “She was using some psychology on me.”

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Battle of the bulge: It seems strange that Derek Pope, bound for Indiana on a full scholarship, had to upset somebody last week just to get past the first round of the USTA Boys’ 18 national tournament in Kalamazoo, Mich. But that’s exactly what happened.

Unseeded Pope of Ojai took out 12th-seeded Adam Neal of St. Louis, 6-4, 3-6, 6-2.

Victories are rarely a problem for Pope, one of the most talented players in his age group in Southern California. Keeping his weight down is.

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He stood 6 feet 2 and weighed 255 at age 16 when he joined a tennis academy in Florida and shed 25 pounds. But last winter the weight came back. Pope, now 18, was back up to 250.

“At first it wasn’t noticeable,” he said. “But I weighed myself in January and said, ‘Wow.’ ”

Six hours of court time each day in the Florida heat and humidity have trimmed Pope down once again. He weighed 218 during the Southern California sectional tournament in late June.

“I’m not getting tired at all,” he said. “I can run down balls. I don’t need as much time between points. Being in shape is the most important part of my game right now.”

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Pope won two more matches at the national before he was eliminated by sixth-seeded Justin Gimelstob of Whippany, N.J., in the round of 16.


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